Martin Cruz swung his boot through the penalty kick, smacking it in the right side of the net before wheeling away to celebrate with his Nation Ford boys' soccer teammates.
The Falcons edged Northwestern in a spot kick shootout Tuesday, March 27, 2018, a game indicative of how tight Region 4-5A boys' soccer is this season. The Trojans twice clawed back from one-goal deficits, Carson Guest scoring with just two minutes left to force overtime. But Jon Jarrett's team held its nerve in the PK shootout and Ben Tuipulotu, who played striker in regulation and overtime, stepped in between the sticks and stopped a pair of Northwestern penalties for the win.
Cruz, Tuipulotu and company celebrated like they'd just won the region championship. Their relief and joy wasn't out of place. Beating a Region 4-5A team is hard work.
Just ask Gaffney, which lost to Northwestern last year in the first round of the 5A boys' soccer playoffs. The Trojans were seeded fourth out of Region 4-5A, but went on the road and dropped the top-seeded Indians to advance. That wasn't surprising to any of the coaches in the five-team Region 4-5A, one of the strongest in the state the last few years. It also wasn't surprising that four of the five region teams were ranked top-10 in the state in last week's polls (Region 5-5A had three teams ranked and Region 7-5A had two).
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"It's a real tough region from top to bottom, there are no easy games," said Trojans coach Dom Wren on Monday as he watched his team train. "Positives of that, it gets you ready for the playoffs."
Northwestern hasn't won a region title since 2013 but Wren thinks he has the team to break that barren run this spring. The Trojans' biggest advantage is their experience. This year's team has 12 seniors, including keeper Davis Hooten, who will play college soccer at Michigan State. Hooten has started since his freshman year at Northwestern and Wren said he would have started in seventh grade if state rules allowed.
"He's probably played more games for Northwestern than anyone else," said Wren. "Tremendous goalkeeper, tremendous leader."
"Great temperament. I think that's an underestimated character for a top goalkeeper," Michigan State men's soccer coach Damon Rensing said about Hooten. "Someone who is cool and calm, but competitive, and he's really got that temperament, along with some very good physical tools."
Hooten's presence in goal spreads confidence throughout the Northwestern rearguard, especially important because the Trojans lost two of their centerbacks for the season due to ACL tears. But Wren pointed out that the normally placid Hooten can lose his temper with his teammates on occasion. Wren cited the 4-3 first round playoff win over Gaffney last season.
"At halftime of the playoff game we were down and we were walking into the locker room and Davis was already in there. He was letting them know exactly what he thought, that it wasn't good enough, and we stayed outside the locker room and he did the team talk for me," said Wren. "That example shows me how much he really cares about winning."
Even with its seniority, Northwestern still starts a freshman and a sophomore, not uncommon for a league that has a pile of talented young players.
Clover lost 11 seniors from last season's team and only plays a handful of upperclassmen. One of the few seniors, Zach Pierce -- who is headed to Gardner-Webb to play college soccer -- has stepped into the leadership vacuum left by graduation. And freshman Dawson Malcolm is starting at centerback and was selected as a team captain by his peers. The 6-foot-1 prospect is central to coach Graham Stafford's youth movement, one that will have Clover back in statewide contention in the very near future.
Two late goals gave Clover a 3-1 win over Rock Hill Tuesday night. Maybe the Blue Eagles' rebuild won't take as long as thought?
Rock Hill is also young -- just three seniors on the roster -- but that's not dissuaded Bearcats coach Cesar Robles from believing in his team. Robles' team knocked off defending 5A state finalists J.L. Mann 2-0 earlier this season.
"Expectations remain the same," he said in an email. "We truly believe we can compete for a top region finish and a run in the state playoffs."
Northwestern hadn't beaten Fort Mill at Bob Jones Stadium since its region-winning 2013 season, before a 2-0 win last Wednesday, March 21. Maybe that's a good omen for the Trojans, but it's also indicative of how the annually strong Fort Mill program is undergoing renovations.
Like Clover, the Yellow Jackets graduated a bevy of talented seniors and only starts three -- striker Grant Stevens, centerback Andrew Vollmer and talented keeper Gavin McCraw. First-year head coach Phillip McCarter switched the team's formation to a 4-3-3 and, including himself, has five coaches on staff (three paid, two volunteers), meaning the Yellow Jackets unquestionably have the best coach-to-player ratio in the region. Fort Mill starts four juniors in midfield, suggesting the Yellow Jackets' best season may be ahead.
Northwestern may have been the team to beat at the start of this week, but it's Nation Ford now.
The Falcons lost four key players to college soccer off a 2018 team that finished second in the region and reached the second round of the state playoffs , but their form has hardly palpitated. Jarrett's attack, led by the battering rams of Tuipulotu -- the BYU football recruit -- and Josue Garcia, plus the relentless Cruz, has scored nine goals in three region wins
Senior Cruz scored nine goals and assisted four more in the season's first 12 games. Tuipulotu is back after missing last season with an ACL tear. He terrorizes opposing defenses with his size, which also proved handy in the penalty shootout. And junior Zach Merritt scored the goal of the match against Northwestern, turning inside on his defender in the first half and lashing a 20-yard strike past Hooten.
It's not clear if Nation Ford can keep up its unbeaten start in a league with so much parity. This much is clear, though:
"There will be a very good team missing the playoffs from our region," said Jarrett.