CORNELIUS – It’s not as easy as it looks, folks.
The Hough High girls’ soccer team is powerfully rolling along for the third straight spring. The Huskies (13-0-1) are crushing I-MECK 4A conference opponents and are North Carolina’s top-ranked Class 4A team.
A year ago, they advanced to the 4A title game, but lost.
Two years ago, they were state champions.
“I think it starts with the foundation we laid when (Hough) opened,” Hough coach David Smith said. “It’s what we expect every year. This bunch is self-motivated.”
They’re also wicked talented. Five Huskies are college-bound next fall – Marnie Merritt and Courtney Carroll (to Mississippi), Sarah Moon (Appalachian State), Nicole Duncan (Catawba College) and Nicole Ferren (nickname: “Spud”), who'll play at Belmont Abbey.
The rest of the lineup is filled with talent and experience. Hough has outscored opponents 72-6, including a 60-1 margin in conference games.
“I like our chemistry,” Smith said. “I like our togetherness. I like how they tend to work for each other really well. Very unselfish.”
In a 9-0 win against Kannapolis Brown, eight Hough players had an assist and six different players scored goals. All three goals in a 3-1 win against Raleigh Millbrook came on corner kicks. Hough scored twice on free kicks against Lake Norman.
Carroll, a midfielder, leads with 19 goals. She’s tied with Duncan, another midfielder, for the team lead in assists (11). Alex Denny has scored 10 goals. Ashley Johnson has nine assists. Brooke Sawyer, Anna Roach and Moon have five goals apiece.
“Everything is starting to click and we’re finally realizing what we’re capable of,” said Merritt, an all-state goalkeeper the past two years. “We realize what we have and how to use it to be successful. We’re playing for each other more and realizing what’s at stake.”
Merritt and back-up Katie Easley have combined for 10 shutouts, including zeroes the past six games.
Merritt said another key is each Husky being able to offer constructive criticism.
“We get on each other, but in a positive way,” she said. “We all have the same goal, what’s different in how we go about it. We’ve talked about it. We stress it’s not about an individual player.”
Hough’s defense has improved. Emma Cangalosi, a sophomore, has shined as the sweeper. Ferren and Blair Timberlake are solid defenders adept at moving the ball out quickly.
“Marnie in the back is huge,” Smith said. “The defenders have more than held their own. The biggest thing is they were timid the first few games and didn’t get in there as much as we wanted. That’s changed in the past month.”
Carroll, the offensive leader, has more room to work as a midfielder, Smith said. He credited junior Emmily Cowie’s ability to “win so many balls in the air,” as a key to Hough’s performance. Anna Roach, a sophomore transfer from Northwest Guilford, rounds out the potent midfield. Olivia DeMarcus, a senior, offers versatility as a defender and midfielder.
The forwards – Moon, Duncan and Denny – each bring something different to the dynamic.
“Nicole (Duncan) is fantastic out wide and makes nice crosses,” Smith said. “Alex (Denny) is more of our back-to-the-goal forward. She’s real strong. Sarah (Moon) loves to run up and down the field. She has speed.”
Hough has a deep bench, too. Smith filled the schedule with strong non-conference opponents. Hough opened the season with a 2-2 tie against Providence (14-0-1 record) and has since beaten Myers Park (9-1), Lake Norman (12-2-1), Millbrook (9-3-1) and Mooresville (11-4-2).
The playoffs loom, a time of year that won’t spook Hough.
“Each game is its own beast," Smith said. "I tell the girls you can’t win the state championship in the second round, but you can lose it.”