CLAYTON — Garner’s boys’ soccer team got an early leg up in the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference race, scoring a 2-1 victory over rival Clayton on Monday night on the strength of two second-half goals.
Both teams entered the match tied for first place in the conference at 2-0. Garner improved to 6-3 overall, while Clayton dropped to 7-2-1.
“Last year, we only lost two (conference) games,” Garner coach Jon Sherwin said. “(One of the) two teams we split with, West Johnston, we beat them 6-0 last Wednesday. We split with Clayton last year, so to win this one makes us feel pretty good about where we stand in the conference.”
After a scoreless first half, the Trojans went away from their normal style of play. Instead of pushing the ball to the corners and making crossing passes, Garner attacked the middle.
“They have got great outside midfielders,” Sherwin said. “A lot of our game is getting the ball outside and trying to get the cross. At halftime, I talked about getting the through balls in the center of the field. I thought they followed what we tried to do in the second half.”
The Trojans broke through in the 58th minute when senior Marco Perez set up sophomore Alejandro Carbajal for a goal and a 1-0 Garner lead.
Perez took a pass on the left side and pushed the ball up the field, then dribbled past several Clayton defenders along the back line. He spotted Carbajal in front of the Comets’ net and made a perfect pass. The sophomore’s point-blank shot found the back of the net.
“Everything came out as I wanted it to,” Perez said. “It was amazing. I saw him and said, ‘This is it. I have to do it. This is my time. Let’s do it. Now or never.’
“It was a great win for us. Clayton is our toughest competition right now. And to beat them at their house, it was a good win.”
The Trojans went up 2-0 with just under six minutes left in the match when senior Zach Hancock beat a Comets defender at midfield and had nothing but green grass between himself and the Clayton keeper.
Hancock pushed the ball to the middle of the field and drilled the shot past the Comets’ keeper from just inside the box.
“At that point, I was just wanted to make the finish,” Hancock said. “You just have to stay relaxed (in that situation). If you over-think it, sometimes you overshoot it. You just have to keep it down and finish it.”
Clayton refused to go down without a fight, attacking with abandon after the Trojans’ second goal.
Clayton cut the margin to 2-1 when senior Alex Owens scored on a rebound in front of the Garner net. The Comets were crashing the goal and Owens brought Clayton within one goal.
Clayton kept coming and had some shots to tie in the final two minutes, but Garner junior keeper Robbie McLamb kept the margin at 2-1.
“They are a good team,” Clayton coach William Williams said. “They passed the ball well. I think we passed the ball well. We match up pretty well.
“That’s the way it’s been for three years. We’ve split (two conference matches) every year.”
Williams was encouraged by the way his team fought back after it fell behind 2-0.
“What I was proud of was when (Garner) went up by two goals with less than 10 minutes left, we didn’t quit,” Williams said. “If anything, we got tougher. That is what you want to see out of your team, especially this early in the season.”
The two teams meet in Garner on Oct. 9. Expect more of the same – a hard-fought match that either team can win.