As the drama continued to build with every waning second during Tuesday’s match at Holliday Stadium, eighth-seeded Laney advanced to its first-ever state championship following a 1-0 overtime result against crosstown rival New Hanover.
Tristan Nelson brought the standing room only crowd to its feet when the junior midfielder headed home the lone goal off a corner kick from Sam Shifflett in the 96th minute of extra time to clinch the 4A East Regional, while the Wildcats saw their season come to a close in the final four of the state tournament for the third time in four years.
“I don’t think anybody had ambitions that there would be a ton of goals tonight,” said Laney Coach Jamie Noble. “We were really fortunate to be scoreless at the half and started to get back to possessing the ball and doing what we do best as the game progressed.
“We just kept turning the screw, turning the screw and thought it was ironic that we were able to score on a set piece because we worried about their chances off the set.”
The Bucs grabbed their 20th win of the season to improve to 20-3-3 overall and earned their 10th straight result, allowing just two goals during the 4A tournament.
“Our whole defense has been lights out down the stretch,” Noble added. “Stephen [Hagewood] has really changed the dynamics of our team in goal and that’s what seniors are supposed to do. I think if you asked him he would tell you that the back line has been making his job easy.”
New Hanover pressured Laney’s back line through most of the first half as the aggressor early in the match, but Logan Gray, Jack Brarens, Josh Sutton and Robert Atkinson remained steadfast in assisting Hagewood, who finished with five saves and his third clean sheet of the postseason.
The Wildcats had a pair of quality scoring chances midway through the first period as Shaffer Lisle’s deep throw-in nearly connected with a diving Juan Rosales. Following Laney’s best opportunity during the opening 40 minutes off a strike from Jackson Young that sailed over the crossbar, Lisle found space on the counter and slid by a pair of defenders along the right edge of the penalty area. However, his shot across frame rang off the left post to keep the match level headed into the break.
“This is the best high school soccer atmosphere I’ve ever seen and that was good for the guys to experience that,” said New Hanover Coach T.J. Rennie. “Midway through the season it could have gone either way. It could have become a very forgettable year, but our boys pushed through and we got every ounce of effort and ability from this group you could get.”
As the game settled down through the final 40 minutes of regulation, Laney started to show its might as a group controlling tempo in the midfield. The two familiar foes continued to battle into the first of two 10 minute overtime sessions, with the Wildcats noticeably slowing in the attack because of the Bucs’ ability to maintain possession.
“When you run down and are chasing all the time it’s hard to keep up on the other end,” said Rennie. “We scored on two free kicks and set pieces against Cardinal Gibbons, but couldn’t get that last little touch down here, down there, whatever it is, but that’s the game.”
With the game clock winding down in the second extra period, Laney earned its third corner kick of the match and Nelson sealed his team’s fate by finding just enough space to get his head on a bending ball from Shifflett near the middle of the penalty box.
Laney faces West Regional representative South Mecklenburg (21-0-2) in the 4A state championship inside Dail Soccer Complex at N.C. State on Saturday, November 21. Game time is yet to be determined.
“We’re going to try to savor the whole experience,” said Noble. “You saw the crowd tonight. It was awesome. The kids every single minute of it and hope they’re enjoying it.”
This weekend’s title game will be just the second time a Wilmington school has played for a state championship in boys soccer. New Hanover, who closed the year 20-8-1 overall, qualified for the final game of the season in 2008.