RALEIGH — It wasn’t everything they hoped for, but it was hard-earned, and well-deserved.
The Midwest Region team, including four players and three coaches from area teams and a substantial contingent representing Mount Airy High School, battled through two matches in 90-degree heat, an overtime period, and finally, a penalty-kick shootout to secure the bronze medal in the Powerade State Games of North Carolina Men’s Soccer Tournament on Sunday afternoon at the WRAL Soccer Park.
The team, which lost its opening match of the two-day showcase on Saturday morning, bounced back to win its second match on opening day, then dominated their Sunday morning showdown to complete pool play with a total of six points. The Midwest had hoped this would be enough to qualify them for the gold-medal game despite the opening-day setback, but they missed out by a single point.
Still, there’s no shame in playing for the bronze medal in an event that featured most of the state’s best returning high school players. Plus, they had a chance at redemption—their opponent was the same Central Region team that had handed them a defeat the morning before.
A number of the players and others involved with the team had felt that their shaky performance against Central, effectively the ‘home’ team made up of players from the Raleigh area, had been because of the 8 a.m. start. While not using that as an excuse for the loss—Central had to deal with it too, after all—they were eager for a chance to not only earn a medal, but also even the score against the only team that had beaten them.
“”We came out flat in that first game against Central,” said Midwest (and MAHS) head coach Will Hurley, who coached two of his Granite Bear players in the tournament. “They were very happy to get another chance at them.”
They did it, but it didn’t come easy.
The teams battled to a 2-2 deadlock in regulation, in which the Midwest’s offense had to overcome two serious blunders by its defense that cost the team on both Central goals. Central proved stronger in possession, and controlled the ball for about 75 percent of the match. However, Midwest keeper Kenneth Gentry of Mount Tabor High School stood strong, as he had in the first match of the day, calling out defensive sets and frustrating the Triangle area team’s attackers.
After being shut out in the first match against Central, it took the Midwest just five minutes to score on Sunday, taking a 1-0 lead when Ben Rowan (Homeschool) found daylight about 10 yards in front of the goal, off an assist from brother Mark, and put a shot past Central keeper Andrew Hevener for a 1-0 lead. That lead stood for more than 30 minutes before the Midwest made two serious miscues right before intermission.
At about 31 minutes, with Central applying heavy pressure on the goal, one of the Midwest fullbacks attempted a back-pass to Gentry, so the keeper could blast the ball out of danger. However, the ball sailed high—one parent later joked that it was the most impressive shot of the day—and sailed over Gentry’s head into his own goal. It was the second own-goal of the day committed by the Midwest, and tied the match.
Central took the lead with about two minutes before halftime, this time on a goal they earned, but only because the Midwest defense came out too far and Anthony Andino (Southeast Raleigh) and Bashirr Morray (Raleigh Charter) of Central got behind them. Andino crossed to Morray at point-blank range, and he finished to make it 2-1 at halftime.
The second half was more a test of endurance than anything else, as the players battled through 40 more minutes of soccer and two five-minute overtimes after having already contested 120 minutes earlier in the day. Fortunately, the Midwest players still had something left in the tank. About 15 minutes into the second half, they moved to the attack and got a shot on Hevener, which he was able to block but not catch, sending the ball back into the field of play. The rebound went to George Ellington (Burlington Williams), who fired it past the keeper to tie the match.
In the first overtime, each team got one good shot at the opposing goal but was unable to convert. Central dominated the second overtime against a leg-weary Midwest defense and had three corner kicks, but Gentry was still boss around the net, and the match ended in a draw. The bronze medal was decided by a penalty-kick shootout.
“I was pretty confident with my kids when it went to the shootout,” said Hurley. “I let them choose who would take the shots, and I think it was the greatest thing we could have done. It worked out very well.”
In the shootout, each team chose five players to take on the opposing keeper one-on-one. Hurley’s players chose well. All four Midwest players who shot—Ben Rowan, Mark Rowan, Leonardo Vasconcelos (Western Alamance) and Caleb Patsch (Greensboro Page)—scored. However, one of the Central players missed high over the net, and Gentry saved the third shot himself. When Patsch scored, it was 4-2 with only one round left, ending the shootout right there.
“We played hard against very good competition, especially as hot as it is. This was tough,” Hurley said. “These will be memories of a lifetime for them, and that’s what I’m happy for.”
Along with Coach Hurley, members of the coaching staff from the area included his son, MAHS assistant coach Holden Hurley, and Seth Daves of Forbush High School. Austin Tumbarello and Malcolm Malone represented Mount Airy as players. Joining them on the 20-man roster were Solomon Maya of Starmount and Saul Zamora of Forbush.
Midwest 3, Northeast 1
Just to reach the bronze medal match, the team had to win on Sunday morning. This proved to be the easy part.
The Midwest had the edge in ball possession against the Northeast team throughout, and prevailed with little problem. This match provided a highlight for Tumbarello, one of the youngest players on the team. After subbing in about 15 minutes into the first half, he put a rebound shot into the net from about 15 yards away several minutes later to end a frustrating run of near-misses for the Midwest. They extended the lead to 2-0 at about the 30-minute mark, when Mason Powell (Page) crossed to Victor Jimenez (Western Alamance) in front of the goal. Jimenez finished to make it 2-0. The Midwest carried this lead into the half.
The Southeast finally got on the board about 12 minutes into the second half, when the ball ricocheted off a Midwest player in front of the net and into the goal. There was some controversy about this goal, but the officials eventually ruled it an own-goal that pulled the Northeast within 2-1. However, it proved academic, because in the 65th minute, Liam Mowers (Randleman) crossed the ball to Jimenez outside the post, and the Western Alamance player came through again. Gentry closed out the Northeast the rest of the match, and his defenders managed not to get in his way again.
The win allowed the Midwest to complete pool play with six points. They would have competed for the gold medal if either of the South or Southeast teams had lost or tied their morning matches, but both claimed victories. However, because this year’s rules based advancement on total points rather than pool standing, the Midwest’s six points (one short of the other two teams), earned them their spot in the bronze medal game against Central, who had won the other pool with four points.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.