CLAYTON — There was a lot on the line Monday night as Clayton hosted West Johnston for a regular season Greater Neuse River Conference soccer match.
After it was all done, a 4-1 Clayton victory gave eight seniors a win on senior night, put the Comets in better for a higher seed in the state playoffs and gave Clayton its second straight Johnston United Soccer Association Cup championship.
The Comets went ahead in the first half, thanks to some relentless attacks that created six corner kicks and helped the Comets take advantage.
In the 25th minute, Brandon Sainz placed his corner kick at the edge of the six-yard box and Connor Jones headed the ball back across the goal to put the Comets (17-3-2, 12-1-1) ahead.
Seven minutes later, Sainz found Alex Owens in a similar position off yet another corner kick. Owens’ attempt at goal deflected off of teammate Ray Lines for what ultimately proved to be the game winner.
“Nine times out of 10, we’re going to score on those,” Clayton coach William Williams said of the corner kick opportunities his club generated. “If we get goals, lots of times they’ll be off direct kicks or corner kicks because we practice those pretty hard and we’ve got some good players to execute.”
Due to rain cancellations and the scheduling conflicts that came with trying to reschedule the final, Clayton and West Johnston, the two remaining teams, had agreed that their second GNRC game would also serve as the championship game for the JUSA Cup.
The fact that the championship game also occurred on senior night against a rival added to the emotions of the game and the Comets were able ride that wave.
“It means the world (to me) especially against West Johnston, one of our major rivals,” said senior back Chase Jones, a three-year member of the varsity team. “It’s a great feeling.”
Snaider Astorga, Nick Christiansen, Drew Edwards, Jackson Keener, Lines, Owens and John Rous all joined Jones in their final regular season home game of their high school careers.
Down 2-0 at the break, the Wildcats, in search of a potential wild-card berth in the playoffs, began to throw more players forward and created more scoring opportunities.
But it wasn’t until after Sainz netted two more goals late in the second half for Clayton that West Johnston got on the board, as senior Jon Atherholt slid a pass across the face of the goal to senior Austin Stewart, who then found the back of the net.
“We definitely had a lot more opportunities in the second half,” West Johnston coach Ken Sweat said. “I think a big part of that was having Jon Atherholt up there. In the second half with Atherholt up top, I felt like we got a little more play forward because he was able to possess the ball.”
The Wildcats (10-11, 5-8) needed a win on Wednesday against Harnett Central to move to .500 on the year to have a shot at getting a possible wild card spot in the 4A playoffs.
Clayton locked down the No. 2 seed from the GNRC and likely at least one home playoff match. Then there’s that cup they get to hang onto for another year as well.