by Cliff Mehrtens

Meeting high expectations can be difficult.
At first glance, the Hough High boys soccer team’s 11-1-2 record could make you think it’s been breezy for the Huskies, ranked No. 3 in the state’s Class 4A poll.
But Hough has battled injuries to key players, a grueling pre-conference schedule and the weight of those expectations.
Defender Nathan Deering is back after missing about seven games. Midfielder Santiago Patino (four goals and six assists) missed six games with an ankle injury.
Cheyn Roux (three goals, seven assists) went home from school with a sore throat recently.
“That turned out to be mononucleosis,” Hough coach David Smith said. “He’s out a few weeks.”
Nathaniel Goodwin, who leads Hough in goals (15) and assists (eight), missed two games last week with a concussion.
Despite the shakeups and missing players, Hough tied rival Lake Norman, 2-2, in a first-place battle in the I-MECK 4A conference on Sept. 28.
“That was a huge gut-check for the boys,” Smith said. “That showed me a lot about our mental makeup. It says a lot about the guys who have stepped up. You never want to deal with injury, but it’s part of sports these days. Our goal is to get healthy by the end of October (playoffs).”
Defense has been a staple for Hough all season. The Huskies have won two of the past three games by shutout and limited foes to 10 goals in the past 12 games.
“I think we kind of struggled in the beginning,” defender Mace Timberlake said. “Our backs were playing well, but I don’t think our midfielders quite had the defensive concept yet. They’ve caught on, and our defense has gotten better and better.”
The end-to-end defensive improvement lessens the quantity and quality of shots faced by goalkeepers Jaron Bradley and Collin Black.
“The offense essentially has to play defense as well,” Bradley said. “It’s got to be a collective effort.”
Smith loaded the early-season schedule with tough opponents, and the Huskies have beaten ranked teams Providence, Weddington and Charlotte Catholic, and tied Myers Park (the reigning 4A Western champion).
“After we got punched in the mouth by South Meck (a 5-2 loss on Aug. 18), I think that brought everybody back to earth,” Smith said. “We have our feet firmly on the ground, and (polls) are nice but mean nothing. It’s a pat on the back around school.
We’re only looking at the next game.”
Hough beat Mallard Creek, 1-0, on Oct. 3, on freshman Tanner Roberts’ goal. Justin Collins assisted on the goal, and Bradley was in net for the shutout.
A rematch against Lake Norman looms on Oct. 24, a game that likely will decide the conference champion. But the Huskies aren’t looking that far ahead. Too risky.
“We don’t want to overlook anybody,” Black said. “We’re taking it game by game. Our motto is: ‘Whoever we’re playing that night is the hardest team we’re going to see.’”
Last season as a first-year team, Hough advanced four rounds into the playoffs. Smith said it’s often overlooked that last year’s team had 12 wins, and this year’s squad already has 11.
“The defense has definitely started to gel,” he said. “Not just from the four defenders standpoint, but our forwards and midfielders are getting a little more pressure on the ball. We’ve got a lot of speed, but can’t be afraid to use it.”