by Denny Seitz
On the brink of an unlikely run to the Class 4A state soccer semifinals, the Hough Huskies found themselves this week relaxed and hopeful about continuing their upset-filled trek through North Carolina’s soccer world.
What a difference two weeks can make.
Players in the first-year Huskies program had to hold their breath as the playoff seedings were released a couple Saturdays ago, unsure about whether the team would earn a wild-card berth after finishing the regular season 8-12-1.
When they learned they’d secured one of the two wild-card spots in the playoffs, they embraced it as a fresh opportunity for a team that truly has experienced a new beginning in 2010.
So the team that didn’t exist six months ago, at the school that didn’t open its doors until August, playing in a conference that’s produced state-championship contenders almost annually, went into a Nov. 17 game at perennial power Myers Park as one of the last four teams standing in the state.
With players boasting minimal varsity experience, coming from three different schools, and with no seniors on the roster, head coach David Smith had few expectations. But as his team prepared for the game against a Myers Park squad that was 24-1 and is just two seasons removed from a 25-0 state championship season in 2008, there was plenty of chatter about the discrepancies between the programs.
The chatter might not be what you’d expect.
“It’s funny,” Smith said, “but the talk wasn’t about being intimidated. It was about how scary it would be to play us right now. We are as loose and as ready as a team can be,” Smith said.
In fact, much as they’ve done throughout the postseason, the Huskies have embraced their status as underdogs.
Who needs veteran players and rich tradition when you have confidence and karma?
No seniors, no problem, they say.
“We’ve dealt with injuries all season, but that’s not making excuses,” said Smith, who started the soccer program at Vance when that school opened in 1997 and had 13 successful years there before taking the Hough job.
“We’re finally healthy, but the reason we’re doing well is that there’s no nervousness,” he continued. “We have nothing to lose. We’re the underdogs.”
The Huskies stunned top-seeded Porter Ridge, 1-0, in the first round of the playoffs, then started what they’ve dubbed their “Redemption Tour,” facing a trio of teams that had defeated them either in preseason scrimmages or during the regular season.
In succession, the Huskies have downed Asheville A.C. Reynolds, 2-0, avenging a 4-1 loss in the team’s first scrimmage ever, then downed Mallard Creek, 4-3, reversing a 3-0 loss in the regular-season finale on Oct. 27.
As if the storybook part of the season needed any more oomph, the win against Mallard Creek came with Smith at home, suspended for a game after picking up his third yellow card of the season in the win against Reynolds.
“That was the worst,” said the first-year coach, who said he paced the floors of his home in the Caldwell Station neighborhood, wondering how his team was faring. Smith couldn’t be in contact with any coaches or players during the game but got updates from his father via phone about every 15 minutes.
“I just remember the last thing I told the players before that game,” he said. “I told them they were going to go out and beat Mallard Creek and that I’d be back for the next game. And I told them we were going to win that one, too.”
That game turned out to be the biggest stunner yet – a 2-0 victory against perennial power Lake Norman, a team ranked eighth in the state that had defeated the Huskies twice during the regular season.
In 21 regular-season games, the Huskies shut out three opponents. In four postseason games, the team notched three more shutouts.
Things had aligned nearly perfectly heading into the Myers Park game, which was a rematch of Hough’s first regular-season game in school history, a 4-0 loss on Aug. 18.
All the key players for the Huskies were healthy. Another chance at redemption was awaiting the team. Fate, luck or whatever Smith wants to call it was going to be headed to southern Mecklenburg County with them. A few busloads of fans were en route too.
Could the team continue its magic?
Junior goalkeeper Collin Black was seeking his fourth shutout in five postseason games. He was likely to get help from sweeper Mace Timberlake or center midfielder Eric Livingston.
Leading scorers Nathaniel Goodwin (nine goals, 11 assists) and Santiago Patino (13 goals, eight assists) were looking to add to their point totals.
Cheyn Roux, who had the lone goal in the Porter Ridge game, and James Jackson, who had both goals against Lake Norman, were wondering if their chance at another clutch goal would present itself.
“Cheyn’s goal that won the Porter Ridge game was a slow roller that just got past the goal line,” Smith said. “But I told him, in the record books, it looks like a blazing shot that burned a hole in the back of the net.”
The second goal at Lake Norman, which came in the game’s final minute and clinched the victory that set off a huge Hough celebration, was poetic. All season long, the upstart Huskies were chasing the rest of the I-MECK 4A conference. They were chasing respect and victories, and ultimately found both.
But the fitting part of it all came as Lake Norman was forced to pull it’s goalie up to midfield in hopes of quickening an offensive assault as the final seconds ticked off the clock and Hough clung to a 1-0 advantage. Hough eventually got possession near midfield, and the ball ended up on James’ foot, where he booted the ball high and hard and watched as it bounced into the net as the Wildcats’ all-state goalkeeper, Nick Hensley, raced toward it, unable to reach it in time.
“It’s an amazing run, and I hope it continues,” Smith said. “I’ve used every good luck charm. “I’ve worn out every cliché. I’ve motivated them every way I could think of. Now, we just have to go play.”