KENLY — The West Johnston girls soccer team has used the Four Oaks Bank Cup girls soccer tournament for Johnston County schools as a take off point for a pair of memorable seasons. After rallying by rival Cleveland Thursday night at North Johnston High School to win a third straight Cup, 3-1, the Wildcats may just be poised to do the same this spring.
Despite losing nine valuable seniors to graduation and fielding a roster with just two seniors, West was able to answer Cleveland’s stellar first half and went onto dominate play in the second half and overtime.
“Winning this for a third time just shows us what a great opportunity we have this season,” said junior forward Alaina Custer. “We’ve come so far from last year, losing nine seniors and getting back together as a team, not knowing who would be our coach for a while.
“We just didn’t want the chance to win it again to slip away.”
Custer was named the offensive MVP for the tournament, scoring eight goals in three matches.
But it was first-time Cup finalist Cleveland who grabbed the early lead when Megan Morris took advantage of a clearing mistake and was able to carry the ball by the West keeper and touch it home for a 1-0 lead 21 minutes into the match.
The goal was a benchmark event of sorts for Wildcat opponents in a Cup championship match. It was the first time West (3-0) has been scored on in its string of three straight county championships. (West beat Smithfield-Selma 12-0 in last year’s final and was a 4-0 winner over SSS in 2011.)
The goal seemed to slow the Wildcats’ attack down as Cleveland (2-1) controlled the majority of the offensive possession for the remainder of the first half.
“I told the girls we weren’t going to go a whole season without giving up a goal,” Sweat said. “We hesitated at times but then we started cutting down on the space we were giving Cleveland when they had the ball, making it tougher on them to get their offense going.”
West’s only scoring chance of note in the first half after Morris’ goal was a one-touch blast by Mackenzie Barber, which sailed over the crossbar.
West Johnston would go onto dominate possession in the second half. The Wildcats outshot the Rams 8-0 in the second half and getting the match to overtime, given West’s offensive push, was a notable accomplishment for the Rams’ defensive line led by tournament defensive MVP Briele Cochran.
Cochran, Sarah Ginn, Blair Witmer, Madison Reid, Brittany Preston, Monique Torres and Kaylah Alexander all shared time on Cleveland’s backline which played without standout Alexis McLeod, who was out with an injury.
Custer pulled West even nine minutes into the second half when she drove home a rebound after a blast from junior teammate Heather Bittle couldn’t be controlled by Ram keeper Katelynn Lowery.
“We just couldn’t crack Cleveland’s defense, it’s a credit to them,” Sweat said of the Rams’ play. “They were playing us very well. But I just tried to remind the girls at the half that they’re savvy soccer players, just play to the space we had and they did a good job of adjusting.”
West had five more solid scoring chances in the final 15 minutes of regulation but couldn’t get the ball by the Ram defense or Lowery.
Three minutes into the first overtime period, the Wildcats got that much desired go-ahead goal when Bittle punched home a pass from Rachel Thomas.
West added its third goal a minute into the second overtime when Bittle slotted home a ball from Custer.
The Wildcat defense created quick transitions to their offense in the final 60 minutes of play with strong clearing passes, majy off of the foot of sophomore Rebecca Meshaw.
“When we gave up that first goal, it took a while to get it out of our heads,” Custer said. “Coach talked to us at halftime about getting back to what we do, playing our kind of match. We only have two seniors, so we just relied on each other and our defense got really tough on them.”
As West begins defense of its Greater Neuse River 4A Conference championship this week, there’s still plenty left to accomplish this season. But winning a third straight Cup – becoming the first team to do so – is just the start the young Wildcats wanted.
“This is a great group,” Sweat said. “They’re all experienced players who know how to play the game. It’s just a credit to their desire to win this again.”
Best: 919-524-8895 or Twitter: @dclaybest