KNIGHTDALE — New Bern and Knightdale coaches could have researched each other’s teams all they wanted prior to their first-round meeting in the NCHSAA 4A state soccer playoffs Wednesday.
But they couldn’t have known ahead of time how much action Knightdale keeper Megan Champion would see as the Bears posted a 4-0 win and ended a quality season for the Knights.
“You take Champion out of the lineup and it would be a mercy rule,” first-year Knightdale head coach Collin Dalton said, referring to a rule that a team that goes up 9 goals wins automatically after 40 minutes. “She did everything she could to keep us in it, especially in the first half when it was a 1-0 ball game.”
Champion, a senior who played varsity softball her first three years at Knightdale, was pleased despite the unwanted conclusion to her first and only season on the school’s soccer team because she saved three times as many goals as she allowed.
“It tests me and it’s scary, but I love it,” Champion said. “I feel like that was the best game of my season. I’m kind of glad I went out like that, but I’m kind of upset that we went out like that as a team.”
Champion compared New Bern (11-6-1, Mideastern Conference No. 3) to Cap-8 teams the Knights faced early in their season, like Millbrook. Ironically, New Bern coach Tim Guter considered Knightdale (11-7-1, Greater Neuse River No. 2) one of those “Raleigh schools you can’t take lightly.”
Guter acknowledged the similarities between his team’s conference, one that consists of Wilmington soccer powers Hoggard and New Hanover, and some of the top soccer leagues in the Triangle. He spoke highly of the efforts of Knightdale seniors Brittany LaRussa, Holly Lopez and, in particular, Champion.
“She’s a true athlete and moved really well,” Guter said of Champion. “She wasn’t afraid to come out and challenge the ball. She organized the backs, kept talking to the backs, came off the line and distributed well.”
The Bears put immediate pressure on the Knights with five corner kicks in the first seven minutes of the game. New Bern’s Brittany McLawhorn got a goal-side header on one of the corner kicks, but Champion snagged it up. Champion exhibited her vertical leap to contain another attempt from the corner that kicked off the crossbar.
Knightdale only broke into the Bears’ back line twice in the first 30 minutes, once on a free kick by Vanessa Canales and again on a Brenna Hardy drive up the left side.
New Bern’s Shannon Fagan broke the scoring silence as she raced to a ball near the top of the box and fired a low shot through traffic into the left side of the goal with 3:47 left in the first half. McLawhorn scored the Bears’ second goal four minutes into the second half after breaking free up the right side.
Morgan Dameron worked a nice pass to Carly Mounts for what was one of the Knights’ greatest threats of the game with 23 minutes to play, but New Bern senior keeper Morgan Young got a hand on the ball and it bounced off the post and out of play.
With just under 12 minutes to play, senior Sierra Bondurant took a pass from the left and squared a shot that kissed the crossbar directly above Champion and ricocheted down and in for the Bears’ third goal.
Bondurant went on to serve a corner kick to McLawhorn, who made her second attempt at a header goal count as the ball skipped past Champion near the right post with 5:24 to play.
LaRussa, the Knights’ leading goal scorer, was nursing a back injury and it showed at times, but Dalton made no excuses for his team’s inability to move the ball into the Bears’ defensive third.
“We got hardly any chances on the offensive side because we couldn’t play through their defense,” he said. “It seemed like we were one step off, and that put us behind.”
The first-year coach managed a smile after the game when thinking about his lineup next year despite losing Champion, LaRussa, Lopez, Amber Richardson and Sarah Snotherly – who missed the second half of the season due to a knee injury – to graduation.
“Just because we lost in the first round doesn’t make that an unsuccessful season, and I don’t want them to forget about that part of it,” Dalton said. “We’ve got a lot of young people coming back, so it’s very exciting.”