Two familiar foes squared off at Legion Stadium on Tuesday night in the Mideastern Conference opener for both sides as back-to-back league champion New Hanover hosted crosstown rival Laney.
For a team that finished second in the division over the past two seasons, the Bucs were business as usual off the opening kick. While it took the visitors from Laney a few minutes to find their legs, it was Robert Atkinson who buried a right-footed strike from just inside the 18-yard line late in the first half to provide the difference maker in a 1-nil result.
“We’re really fortunate to have a lot of quality players and when you have a lot of great minds working together good things happen,” said Laney Coach Jamie Noble, who grabbed his first win on Jurgensen-Gabriel Field since taking over the Bucs program. “The goal was a thing of beauty. Robby [Atkinson] latched onto it and buried it in the back of the net.
“For a big game that’s what you want from your big players, to step up and make plays and that’s why he’s our captain.”
The Wildcats were aggressive over the opening stages of the match, but Nathaniel Lorenz and the Bucs’ defense, including Jack Brarens, Logan Gray and Josh Sutton, were up to task against the New Hanover attack.
As possession moved back and forth through the opening period, David Dailey found himself with some space near the left edge of the penalty area and slid a nice touch to an unmarked Atkinson, who tallied the lone goal in the 31st minute. It was senior midfielder’s first score of the season.
“The defenders kind of backed off and gave me a perfect angle to shoot,” said Atkinson. “I have to give credit to David for making a perfect pass. It’s exciting to get that goal and it’s been awhile since we’ve won at Legion so we’re really pumped up and ready to look ahead to our next game on Thursday.”
Action continued on both ends of the pitch throughout the second half as both teams remained aggressive in their opponents final third.
However, scoring chances came few and far between during the final portion of the match until New Hanover nearly connected on a direct kick with four minutes remaining in regulation, but with Laney goal keeper Owen Platt drawn off his end line, Gray made a game-saving play by turning away John Evans with an open frame to preserve the one-goal advantage.
“We knew from the get go we’d have a tall order,” Noble added. “New Hanover is the two-time conference champions and you have to play really well to beat them. I’m just real proud of our guys. We worked really hard tonight and put their best out there. It’s a place where we haven’t had a lot of success, but give our guys credit for grinding out a result against a really good team.”
Laney extended its season opening unbeaten streak to 10 straight games as the Bucs improved to 7-0-3 overall and 1-0 in conference. New Hanover saw its four-game win streak come to an end. The Wildcats fell to 7-3-1 overall and 0-1 in league play.
“It’s a tough week to start conference against two really good teams,” Atkinson said. “We look to start the schedule 2-0 and everyone will be chasing us, but we need to bring the same energy and focus come Thursday.”
Both sides return to the pitch on Thursday. New Hanover plays at home against South Brunswick, while Laney begins a four-game home stand against Ashley.