Pluck and grit carried Northwestern to a 2-1 boys’ soccer win over Fort Mill on a frosty Tuesday night.
Bailey Woolley’s penalty 15 minutes into the second half put the host Trojans up 2-0 and Dom Wren’s team, ranked third in the state in Class AAAA, was able to stave off a late fight-back by the No. 7-ranked Yellow Jackets (8-2, 4-1).
“They played superb tonight, give them a lot of credit,” said Wren. “I’m really proud of my team tonight because it was a scrap on a windy and cold night. You have to stand up and be counted on a night like this, and these wins, they’re a little sweeter than the 6 and 7-nil victories.”
Northwestern (7-0-2, 5-0) grabbed the lead just 10 minutes into the game when Erwin Salazar latched on to a diagonal ball over the top of the Fort Mill backline and thumped a volley with the instep of his left boot over goalie Randall Phillips and into the far corner.
“We made one mistake and let a man inside us,” said Fort Mill coach Lloyd Chalker. “That’s how it goes in this game.”
It was a rare moment of magic on a night when the numbing cold made for wooden touches and an endless series of crunching 50-50 clashes.
“Tonight was more about mentality, the pride and desire to bend but not break,” said Wren, an Englishman who probably felt right at home in the bone-chilling temperature. “They scored a goal; we bent, but we didn’t break.”
Northwestern had the best of much of the first half and nearly doubled its lead when Manny Lozano’s deflected free kick from the edge of the penalty area flicked off a Yellow Jacket forehead and just wide of the goal. But Fort Mill flashed the danger that its litany of quick feet posed late in the half. Trojan keeper Cody Jones bobbled an Austin Cassidy flick-on and Northwestern defenders were able to clear, before Fort Mill’s Winthrop-committed attacker Jonathan Cutrone darted into the penalty area but fluffed his cross/shot at the crucial moment.
The visitors continued that momentum into the second 40 minutes in front of a brave bunch of fans huddled in the metal bleachers beneath blankets of every pattern. Fort Mill started Keegan Downie and Cutrone on opposite sides of an attacking triangle spearheaded by Cassidy, and both wingers almost scored in the opening stages of the second half, Downie hooking just over and Cutrone nearly pouncing when Jones spilled Cassidy’s low cross.
But the Yellow Jackets’ building charge was stunted when Northwestern’s William Hughes was undercut in the box on a high ball. Woolley stepped up and placed his spot kick into the left corner, though Fort Mill keeper Phillips did get a glove to the shot. Northwestern led 2-0 with 25 minutes to play.
That goal seemed to spark Fort Mill’s flint and the Yellow Jackets nearly halved the deficit when Cutrone beat Jones to a long ball downfield, nicking the ball past the keeper, only for Lozano to clear off the line. Chalker’s group did cut the Trojan lead to 2-1 several minutes later. Cassidy laid a ball into Downie’s streaking run through the right channel and he slid a low finish past Jones.
It was game-on, again.
Fort Mill poured forward, moving several defenders into advanced positions and they nearly equalized when defender Calvin Blaschke’s free kick from the left touchline pinged off the crossbar. Panic on both sides ensued as legs swung, and missed, and finally Northwestern scrambled the ball away.
“We find a way to finish and that game is different,” said Chalker. “That seems to always be our problem in big games like this.”
As Fort Mill pushed forward, Northwestern hunted the third goal that would kill off the game, and nearly got it twice. Senior Julian Welborn smashed a volley over from close range, and Salazar, ever-present on the left, beat Phillips with a low shot that was cleared off the goal line. All the while Northwestern’s centerback pairing of Lozano and Alan Taylerson headed away every ball that came their direction, until finally the ref sounded his whistle ending the match.
“Second half, those two guys didn’t put a foot wrong,” Wren said about Lozano and Taylerson. “At halftime I had a few choice words for them and they responded absolutely superbly.”
While Northwestern’s players scampered to the warmth of waiting cars or the locker room, Fort Mill’s disappointed bunch packed its gear for the bus ride home, already thinking about the two teams’ May 2 rematch, to likely be played in much warmer climes.
“We get them at home next and we’ll see what we can do,” said Chalker. “It’ll probably be us and them for the region and we’ll have to find a way to win by two goals.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T