Great Feeling: Pinecrest Advances State Semifinals
The Pinecrest Patriots are heading back to the NCHSAA 4A state semifinals, where they will take on Jordan tonight at 6:30 p.m. in Durham.
It marks the Pats’ second straight appearance in the eastern regional championship. After gutting out a high-drama 2-0 victory against Harnett Central in Saturday’s state soccer quarterfinals at John Williams Athletic Complex, Pinecrest jumped up five spaces in the NCSCA 4A poll as it enters tonight’s match as the fifth-anked team.
Pinecrest head coach Todd Abbey admitted after the game that he was proud of his team and had some strong feelings about the astounding achievement of the Patriots returning to the state semis a second straight time.
“Right now a huge weight is off my shoulders,” Abbey said, “because we made it back to the final four and that was our goal.
“At the beginning of the year, before our first scrimmage at Sanderson High School, I reminded this team that, yes, we did make it to the final four last season. But out of those 23 guys, only six current players were on the roster. So they should come out expecting to be targeted and play accordingly.”
After starting the season with a brutal nonconference schedule, Pinecrest’s record fell to 4-4-1 after a 1-0 loss at Sanderson. Since then the Patriots are 15-1-1, have won six straight and are unbeaten in their last eight contests.
“As things rolled on and we played those tough games early in the season, I began to see these guys come together,” Abbey said.
With an undefeated record of 23-0, the Jordan Falcons enter tonight’s final four match as the top-ranked 4A team in the NCSCA poll. The Falcons defeated sixth-ranked Athens Drive 3-1 in the eastern region’s other semifinal playoff match in Durham.
In a markedly physical match against eighth-ranked Harnett Central (19-4-1), forward Dane Nelsen again came through in a major way for the Patriots. The junior forward scored the game-winning goal in the 72nd minute of Saturday’s match.
“We were focused primarily on penetrating in the second half,” Nelsen said. “We just kept going harder and harder and did not stop until we got a ball in the net. This is a great feeling and our fans are unbelievable. The crowd’s energy and emotion really helped us out tonight, and we just tried our best to build on that intensity.”
It was Nelsen’s fifth goal of the playoffs — he has scored the team’s initial goal in every game.
“I just seem to keep getting the first goal,” Nelsen said, “and after that, everybody’s adrenaline really gets pumping and more scores seem to follow.”
With the tension turned up to a tangible level, Nelsen received a big through ball from Richard Palmer. He then raced up field taking two touches to get clear and beat Central’s keeper on a breaker, giving the Patriots a 1-0 lead with 8:45 left in regulation while also sending the sizable Pinecrest crowd into a frenzied celebration.
“Richard stepped over a strong challenge to make that pass,” Abbey said, “which was huge because I personally challenged him during halftime.”
Abbey opted to start the game with his team in a 4-3-3 set; however, he soon shifted Pinecrest back into a more defensive posture by changing the formation to a 4-5-1 to neutralize forward Glenn Muchedzi, the Trojans’ dynamic scoring threat, up top.
“A lot of people had been comparing Muchedzi to Mike Paye (from East Wake),” said Abbey. “So I wanted to start with four guys in the back, but I also wanted to stay on the attack. We wanted to try to spread them wide and take advantage of that.
“When that did not happen, I realized we had to start getting possession. The counter attack just wasn’t working, and Central was getting too many corner kicks and throw-ins deep because we were not winning the ball in the air, so we played out the first half in the 4-5-1.”
At halftime, Abbey and his team had what he referred to as a “come to Jesus meeting.”
“The boys looked at me and said they wanted to go to a 3-5-2, because it’s what they had played all year and were most comfortable in,” he said. “So they wanted to win or lose by that. I told them if they were comfortable in the back covering Muchedzi at that point then let’s do it.
“There were some very close calls out there tonight that could have gone either way, but the boys stepped up. Richard responded in resounding fashion to really show why he is who he is — one of the best players in the state — and Dane and Gray are locked in right now. When they shoot the ball, it is going on frame and you have to stop it.”
Needless to say, the move paid off as Pinecrest dictated the pace and controlled possession to a much higher degree in the final 40 minutes. The Patriots did not allow Central a shot until the 60th minute and the Trojans did not get a try on goal until after Pinecrest had gained its 1-0 lead.
A year after making the goal that sent Pinecrest soccer to its first 4A final four in school history, Gray Anderson put this year’s sectional playoff contest out of reach with just under four minutes remaining in regulation. After controlling a precise pass played up field by Patrick White, Anderson blistered a bullet from distance into the back of the net.
“Coming in, we knew they had a strong forward up top, so I was trying my best all night to stop him,” White said after the game. “Eventually in the second half, when we switched to our 3-5-2, we began to calm down and started possessing well. Finally, we were able to capitalize and now here we are moving on to the final four.
“Last year it almost felt like we were happy just to make it to the final four when we beat New Hanover. Obviously we are happy to be here again, but we are looking to go even further this year. We have the mindset we belong here and are ready to give it our best go Wednesday.”
Junior keeper Mitchell Dotson delivered a dazzling display, coming up with three key stops in the final eight minutes of action. On the night he finished with seven saves.
“Our back four is so strong and so well organized that nothing much really gets through those guys,” Dotson said. “When Gray made that second goal to put the game away, I was speechless. It was just so amazing to watch that shot go in, knowing we had battled as hard as we could to pull this one out and get back to the regional championship.”
Contact F.W. Manning II at email@example.com
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