KNIGHTDALE — The Knights had already clinched a No. 2 finish in the league and the right to host a first round NCHSAA state playoff soccer game, and Clayton knew, win or lose, it faced a road trip for the first round of the playoffs this week.
But it didn’t keep the Comets (10-8-1, 9-4-1 Greater Neuse River 4A) from playing like something greater was on the line as they posted a 1-0 girls soccer victory over the Knights (11-6-1, 11-3) in their regular season finale last Wednesday.
Turning point: Possession was fairly even until the midway point in the first half, when Clayton imposed a steady stream of pressure inside Knightdale’s defensive third. The Comets got the one goal needed to win during that wave of offense.
Ashley Sainz got a solid boot on the ball, especially considering the field’s saturation, and Knightdale keeper Megan Champion made an equally impressive deflection by jabbing up at the ball and causing it to ricochet off the cross bar. But one save wasn’t enough as the ball fell back into play and Clayton freshman Lauren Daniels put it away with a header to the left side of the net while Champion was still regaining her footing a few feet from the right post.
Daniels had another significant look at scoring as she broke through the Knights’ back line with 7 minutes in the half, but Champion got redemption as she challenged and executed the one-on-one save.
What worked: Clayton coach William Williams made a change of plans based on the layout of the Knightdale field and it paid off.
“Our field is very wide, and this field is narrow to our girls, so instead of having two forwards standing beside themselves at the top of the field, I wanted them staggered,” Williams said. “We played one forward high, passed the ball to them and then distributed to the side. They finally did that, and that’s when we got the nice pass to (Sainz).”
What didn’t work: Knightdale leading scorer Brittany LaRussa was sidelined with a lower back bruise as a precautionary measure to ensure she would be ready for the first round of the state playoffs Wednesday. But that’s not why the Knights came out flat in the first half, according to coach Collin Dalton.
“We wanted to be technically correct and maybe not overly aggressive, but we didn’t show (up) in the first half,” Dalton said. “We let Clayton have whatever they wanted.”
Dalton admitted some of the shock from the his players’ second loss of the season to West Johnston – an April 17 loss that eliminated any hopes of Knightdale claiming the conference title – took a toll on their determination in closing out league play.
Following a 10-1 blowout of last-place Southeast Raleigh, the Knights recorded one-goal wins over Garner and Harnett Central prior to the game against Clayton.
“When we lost at West Johnston, that was very deflating emotionally and mentally because we really wanted that shot at the top spot,” Dalton said. “Then, once we got the lock it was a relief to the girls so they feel like they can relax a little bit.”
The relaxed mentality, however, does not concern Dalton despite the slow start of his team Wednesday and its failure to produce the tying goal in a second half that witnessed a more aggressive Knightdale effort.
“We were still missing the final phase (in the second half). We weren’t getting the ball forward,” Dalton said. “But it’s not gone away from us. It’s just learning when to turn it on. We’re going to take the next four days we have working on that in practice.”
This Wednesday: Knightdale hosts Mideastern Conference No. 3 seed New Bern in the first round of the state playoffs at 6 p.m. Dalton said it will be a good opportunity for his team to match the Knightdale team’s showing a few years back.
“2010 was when we made it to the third round, but since then it really hasn’t been there – one round and out,” Dalton said. “We don’t want to lose just because we didn’t give it our best shot. These girls can rally.”
The entry fee at the playoff game is $5 and no season passes will be honored.