Hough girls soccer: zero losses, one title
by Staff Writer
by Cliff Mehrtens
CORNELIUS – The first major accomplishment has been crossed off the list.
The Hough High girls soccer team won the I-MECK 4A conference championship Tuesday, May 1, with a 3-1 home victory against rival Lake Norman. The Huskies (19-0-1) extended their winning streak to 17.
Voters around the country have taken notice, as Hough is No. 2 in the N.C. Class 4A poll, and No. 3 in the ESPN Powerade Fab 50 poll.
But those weren’t paramount against Lake Norman (18-2), ranked No. 3 in the state.
“We had a few goals going into the season, and we can check that one (conference championship) off,” Hough coach David Smith said. “Lake Norman is tremendous. There’s not a better team that we’ve played in the western part of the state.”
Hough withstood a couple of strong early scoring chances by Lake Norman, and seized control with two goals in a two-minute span just before halftime.
Hough’s Allison Stearns made a sharp crossing pass to Morgan Byrne, who drilled in a left-footed goal with two minutes left in the first half. The Huskies went up 2-0 with 12 seconds left in the half. Defender Brianna Cuevas made a long clearing pass to start a break, and Courtney Carroll slid to kick in the rebound.
“We finish halves strong and we finish games strong in terms of scoring,” Smith said. “We’ve scored a lot of late goals. They play until the final whistle, and that was huge in my mind. That was probably the difference in the game.”
Hough sealed matters when Byrne scored her second goal 15 minutes into the second half for a 3-0 lead. It came on a pass from Stearns, who leads Hough in goals (18) and assists (15).
“The goals picked up the momentum right before the half ended,” Byrne said. “We had an advantage going into the second half.”
Hough’s defense made two spectacular plays, and got lucky on another, as Lake Norman pressed in the first 15 minutes. Goalkeeper Marnie Merritt made a one-handed save on Taylor Water’s shot. A few minutes later, Merritt ran up 10 yards to deflect another shot, which then rolled dangerously close to the net. But Hough defender Kailyn Overcash was quick to clear the ball away before it reached the net.
Then, a Lake Norman shot clanged off the crossbar to keep the game scoreless.
“Early on we had to weather the storm, which we knew was going to happen,” Smith said. “An incredible group of (Hough) seniors, who showed exactly why they’ve accomplished what they’ve accomplished tonight. Once we weathered those first 15 or 20 minutes, our seniors showed the leadership we’ve been getting now for two years.”
Hough has all the ingredients of a championship team – depth, talent, experience, confidence and versatility. Stearns leads with 18 goals, followed by Morgan Byrne and Brandi Arey (14 each), Hannah Robinson (11) and Carroll (nine). Hough’s assists are the same way. Stearns has 15, followed by Robinson (14), Cuevas (23), Lindsey Byrne and Arey (eight each).
Merritt has been in net for 12 shutouts, and Hough has outscored opponents 94-8 this season. Before allowing a goal against Lake Norman, Hough had won its past seven games by shutout.
Last season, Hough beat Lake Norman in the state playoffs. This season, as elite 4A teams, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they met again, Smith said.
Hough will close its regular season with a road game at Mallard Creek on Thursday, May 3. Then, it’s off to the playoffs, and chances to tackle more items on their checklist.
“Morgan (Byrne) is a quiet person off the field, but she’s tough as nails,” Smith said. “Allison (Stearns) is Allison. She holds us up so well. She can take two (defenders) out of the play with the way she can hold the ball. Then, Morgan and the other forwards just make super runs off her. Her and Hannah (Robinson) are probably two of the best players in this state.”
Hough’s defense has been solid all season, and is backed by goalkeeper Merritt, a polished sophomore. Smith rotated about six defenders against Lake Norman, with the bulk of the playing time going to Lindsey Byrne, Alison Vest, Overcash and Cuevas.