Playing the waiting game: area soccer teams recover, train ahead of state playoffs

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WILMINGTON — Over the past half-decade, the balance of power among high school soccer teams in New Hanover County has been spread evenly among the Wilmington schools.

As New Hanover, Ashley, Hoggard and Laney all set their eyes on making a run through the state tournament local programs are dealing with a bit of a wrinkle this week moving into postseason play as schools outside this area makeup games due to the effects of Hurricane Matthew.

Declan Payne.
Declan Payne.

Following a competitive schedule in which the New Hanover Wildcats clinched the Mideastern Conference Championship on the final day of the regular season, the black and orange have dealt with its fair share of adversity over the last few months. From injuries to big wins, New Hanover has been battled tested. While Coach T.J. Rennie expressed concern in regards to the upcoming playoff schedule-due to the fact teams will play the first for rounds of the state tournament in eight days-Rennie thinks the extra few days off will be beneficial for his side.

“One thing I’ve learned about this point in the season is that the kids need days off,” Rennie said. “They need breaks physically of course, but mentally just as much. We trained before school Friday morning of last week and gave them the whole weekend to be normal people. No soccer.”

The extra days of recovery and training should prove valuable for not only New Hanover, but all teams looking to get refreshed and refocused moving into the stretch run.

“The other thing we can do with the few days of training leading up to the first-round is our ability to introduce new practice activities. Things can get stale and repetitive, so they need to be challenged. Having fun is also a key component to what we do. When we do train, that is the central theme.”

New Hanover has advanced deep into the 4A tournament multiple times since Rennie took over as head coach. With a 16-3-1 overall mark, the Wildcats should get home field advantage throughout most of the playoffs if they can survive and advance. Senior Robert Franck leads the team with 13 goals this season, while Declan Payne and Paul Horning provide steady play in the midfield. Roman Lewis is a Player of the Year candidate at goal keeper and younger brother Moss Lewis is an emerging threat on the scoring sheet.

Dom Toone. Photo courtesy- Brandon Moore.
Dom Toone. Photo courtesy- Brandon Moore.

The Wildcats do lack a true goal scorer as set pieces and long throw-ins give New Hanover its best chance of finding the back of the net. However, if the Wildcats can get a lead, they may be the best team in the region in its ability to preserve an advantage. In 20 games played, New Hanover has conceded just 11 goals.

Ashley Head Coach Greg Marinich has enjoyed a ton of success in its two seasons at the helm of the Screaming Eagles soccer program. After winning conference last year, Ashley was in the mix for its second league title in as many years and should also be set to host at least two home games come playoff time.

The Screaming Eagles backline is as good as anyone in the state, while Josh Chapman and Dom Toone give Ashley the experience needed to make a run. Like New Hanover, the garnet and gold from Monkey Junction are looking to fine tune things during the next few days until learning their seed for the upcoming playoffs, with brackets expected to be released on Thursday, Nov. 3.

Andrew Robinson and Cesar Cruz are a lethal combo in the attack third for Hoggard and while the Vikings have as much talent if not more than any other team in the area, they need to live up to their potential heading into the postseason. Hoggard scored more goals (73) than any other side in the Midastern Conference this season, but lapses at certain points in the season have put the Vikings in a position where they will need to win on the road early in the tournament.

Tristan Nelson.
Tristan Nelson.

Coming off last year’s 4A State Title appearance, Laney thought it had the right pieces in place and enough returners to make a push for a league title. Things didn’t pan out as the Bucs would have liked this season, but don’t count out a team flying under the radar. Tristan Nelson is as good as any in the attacking forward position. Logan Gray provides stability in the back, while Logan Acuna and Jackson Young bring plenty of playoff experience to the mix.

Seeding for the upcoming state playoffs will take place on Thursday, Nov. 3, with first-round action set to get underway on Saturday, Nov. 5. Eight days later the regional round of the tournament will be set with semifinal action scheduled for Nov. 15 and the state championship set for Nov. 18-19 at the Dail Soccer Complex on the campus of N.C. State.

Depth as much as talent will play a key role in pushing towards a state championship, with four matches set for eight days to open the postseason. Ashley and Hoggard have that combination to be successful over the next two weeks, but don’t count out New Hanover and Laney, who have a recent history of doing big things come playoff time.