OCEAN — The 4-0 victory by the Croatan boys soccer team over West Carteret on Wednesday appeared simple and straightforward on the surface.
But it was more complicated than that.
The Cougars have certainly dominated their conference opponents this season, wrapping up the regular season with nine straight shutouts, finishing 10-0 in league play and 15-2-1 overall.
The result doesn’t look that much different from the program’s 11-0 conference record in the spring, but head coach Paul Slater will tell you this season’s 41-1 goal differential in league play was harder earned than last year’s 71-3 goal advantage.
“It was a new conference, and a more challenging one,” he said. “I know it might not seem like that based on the score, but we are.”
The Cougars are better prepared for the postseason than they were last year, and in a similar position with a No. 1 or No. 2 seed likely when the 3A state playoffs start on Monday. The team will be in a new classification and looking for a repeat state title after winning the 2A championship seven months ago.
“We’ll practice on Thursday and Friday, try to stay even-keeled,” Slater said. “We just want to be healthy for Monday, that’s our biggest focus right now.”
On the other side of the field, West coach Noah Lewis congratulated his team. The result of the match was a loss, but the result of the season couldn’t be construed as anything more than a victory. The Patriots finished 10-7-1 overall and 5-5 in the Coastal, good for third place outright after Dixon (3-6-1) defeated Richlands (4-6) 2-0 on Wednesday.
The finish – and the playoff berth to come on Monday – is a far cry from the 3-8 record the program put up in the spring, or the 13-24 combined record from the previous two seasons.
“I couldn’t be more proud of them,” Lewis said. “I didn’t come into this season with a focus on structure. It was more about turning around the vibes and getting them to buy into a new system. I just wanted to build a family feel and get through the season. The fact that we’re standing here in third place on the way to the playoffs, I couldn’t be happier.”
Lewis, 22, is a rookie head coach and a West alum. With one regular season match left on the schedule, he decided to implement a new formation that he hopes will pay off in the playoffs and beyond. He wasn’t willing to go into detail about the scheme, but he was happy with the showing on the field it produced.
“I told them about this new formation yesterday,” Lewis said. “They had little time to learn it, and right before one of the best teams in the state. They played beautifully, and I genuinely think, if this game is against anyone else in the conference, we walk the dog. Either way, I thought tonight was a great performance right before going into the playoffs.”
Croatan came out of the gate in the first half with a goal from Ward Melton in the first minute off a long ball from the midfield. In the 25th minute, Melton found the back of the net again on a through-ball from Eli Simonette past the Patriots’ back line.
Simonette had a solid night from his spot on the left wing. The senior scored in the 30th minute to make it a 3-0 game off a free kick from Danny Metcalf. He also had a shot deflected in the 76th minute to set up a goal for Dominic Metcalf, who entered the game after his brother exited with a minor injury.
Metcalf’s score came after an otherwise successful defensive half for the Patriots, with keeper Matthew Roberts scooping up eight saves over the 40-minute stretch. West had one or two scoring opportunities that drew groans from the fans when they missed their mark, but the 3-0 deficit at halftime cast a pall over an otherwise balanced second half.
“We had a mountain to climb, but our quality got better as the game went on,” Lewis said. “Honestly, I think the first half was the best we’ve played in a very long time. Not to take anything away from Croatan’s performance, but on another day, those three goals don’t happen.”
Fans showed up in droves for the match, a rare sight for a soccer match. The officials had to quiet a few verbal disruptions from the bleachers as frustrations built over a foul-heavy first half.
After the match, though, the rivalry dissipated into a sea of hugs and high-fives as players from both squads embraced one another. Many of the players compete together on club teams.
“I’m happy we got a shutout win over a rival team, but those kids worked hard,” Slater said. “West Carteret did a great job tonight of making things difficult for us. It was a good game.”
Croatan keeper Eugene Wilson finished with seven saves to earn his eighth clean sheet of the season. Wilson, after splitting time in the net with Anthony Coppa and missing time with injury in the middle of the season, will be the full-time starter for the playoffs.
The seeding for the 3A tournament will be released on Saturday. The first round will be Monday, followed by the second round on Thursday.
Here are results of the match:
West Carteret00 - 0
Croatan31 - 4
C – Melton, 1st minute.
C – Melton (Simonette assist), 25th minute.
C – Simonette (Da. Metcalf assist), 30th minute.
C – Do. Metcalf (Simonette assist), 76th minute