CARY — Paul Slater told his team at halftime of the 2A state final “the goals will come.”
He was right.
They did … finally.
After peppering the goal in the second half – following an offensive onslaught in the first that resulted in just one goal – the Cougars scored three times in overtime to beat Hibriten 4-1 on Friday and earn the first state soccer championship in county history.
“I still knew they would come,” Slater said of his confidence at the end of regulation. “And I said, we would get multiple, so I wasn’t wrong.”
Croatan ended a magical season at WakeMed Soccer Park with a perfect 18-0 record thanks to three overtime victories in the playoffs, including a 4-3 win over James Kenan in the second round and a 3-1 victory over First Flight in the third.
The club also handed the Panthers (18-1) their first loss of the year.
Gavin Beaupre broke a 77-minute scoring drought just two minutes into the first 10-minute overtime period to make it a 2-1 game.
The sophomore had a give-and-go with Alex Amato that saw Amato send a soft lefty lob to Beaupre who corralled the ball with his left heel, knocked it down, turned and stabbed at it with his right toe to push it through to the right corner of the net.
Two minutes later, Danny Metcalf glided through the defense and sent a low shot to the left corner to supply his squad with a 3-1 advantage. Travis Garner-McGraw, who scored the first goal of the game and was named MVP of the match, capped the scoring with a header two minutes into the second overtime to give him 41 goals in a phenomenal senior season.
“I was confident we would come out on top,” Slater said. “The mentality of this group is amazing. They are very focused. The training sessions are good. They push each other. They want to make each other better, so that the team is better. It is an amazing environment to be a part of. This was a team effort. We’ve got a lot of kids that are very good.”
Croatan’s superiority showed in the box score as it held a 22-11 advantage in shots and bettered Hibriten 18-9 in shots on goal as well as 8-3 in corner kicks.
The Cougars’ first trip to a state final in the program’s 23rd year looked as if it might be a heartbreaking one late in regulation. They had controlled the action throughout the contest, but the Panthers made a strong push in the final 10 minutes.
Kevin Rivera-Rios hit a shot that Croatan keeper Alex Ericksen scrambled to save with 10 minutes to go, and three minutes later, a free kick from David Franquiz bounced around the box before Ericksen, who had eight saves in the game, came up with it.
The scariest moment of the night for the Cougars came with five minutes remaining when Gerardo Rodriguez hit a rocket shot that hit off the crossbar and came straight down.
“We hit the post, and I thought it was in at first, and there was one where their goalie caught it deep in the box, so we’re talking about inches,” Hibriten coach Jim Blanton said. “The one that hits the crossbar, if that is one inch different, we are talking about us being state champs, and that is hard to swallow, especially for these kids that have worked so hard.”
The Panthers were making their second appearance in the state final with the first coming in 1989 with that effort also resulting in a state runner-up performance.
Blanton wondered what the outcome would have been if his team was at full strength. Senior midfielder Simon Hawkins missed the second half after colliding with Croatan’s Ryan Lindsay in the first half, resulting in a gash on his head.
Franquiz, a dynamic playmaking threat who registered 30 goals and 33 assists this season, missed the final 15 minutes of the second half and overtime after hurting his knee. He scored his team’s lone goal of the night early in the first half.
“Simon is the heart and soul of our team,” Blanton said. “He’s our captain, and everything runs through him in the midfield. And David is our top offensive player. The trainer wouldn’t let him back in after he hurt his knee.”
The Hibriten coach said the Cougars were the bigger, stronger and more physical team, and he thought that was the difference.
It seemed inevitable that Croatan would prevail at halftime despite a 1-1 tie. The team had numerous chances to score in the first 40 minutes with the best coming when Garner-McGraw was called just offside on a goal after he knocked in a ball that bounced off keeper Mack Waters following an Eli Simonette shot in the 18th minute.
Four minutes earlier, Beaupre headed a Metcalf corner kick, and the ricochet off Waters’ save found the foot of A.J. Matas who fired a hard shot that Waters also saved before Simonette sent the third shot of the attack wide right.
Simonette was busy in the first half, sending a shot too strong to the right on a good look in the 7th minute when he got behind the defense.
He had a shot go wide left across the box in the 32nd minute.
Simonette, Garner-McGraw and Beaupre had back-to-back-to-back shots saved by Waters with less than 10 seconds to go.
Lane Hartman earlier sent a laser from the edge of the box in the 25th minute, but Waters was there again for the save. Waters ended the game with 14 saves.
“The first half, I don’t know, it could have been five, six, seven goals,” Slater said. “It could have been out of reach in the first half, and we just didn’t put them away. We played atypical ball. We had some very poor first touches, then we were overplaying passes.”
There was no sign of a low-scoring regulation when the teams combined to score twice in a 16-second span only six minutes into the contest.
Garner-McGraw had a give-and-go with Beaupre that resulted in goal as he shot from just outside the box to the opposite corner. Franquiz then dented the net on the equalizer as he ran through traffic and hit a lefty shot from the left side.
“I felt like when we got the first one, it gave the kids belief we would get another one,” Slater said. “We were unfortunate not to. They defended very well, and we missed opportunities. We weren’t worried about it, we’ve had so many games were we’ve outshot teams. We just needed to be more clinical in front of the goal so that we weren’t making things so stressful for us.”
Here are results of the game:
Hibriten……………1 0 0 0 0-0
Croatan……………1 0 0 2 1-4
11 Shots 22
9 Shots On Goal 18
3 Corner Kicks 8
14 Saves 8
14 Fouls 13
3 Yellow Cards 3
0 Yellow/Red Cards 0
C – Garner-McGraw (Beaupre assist), 6th min.
H – Franquiz, 6th min.
C – Beaupre (Amato assist), 83rd min.
C – Metcalf, 85th min.
C – Garner-McGraw (Metcalf assist), 92nd min.