WENDELL — In a game where East Wake fielded a defense-first formation, its most defensive player stopped everything that came his way.
Warriors keeper Jason Dean produced nine saves, including six in the second half, as East Wake held on to defeat Knightdale 1-0 in their regular-season finale Wednesday. The win avenged a 2-1 loss to the Knights on Sept. 30.
“It was challenging,” Dean said. “I got through it. We beat our rival and we get to go to the playoffs. It feels real good.”
East Wake improved to 7-8-2 overall, 7-7 in the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference, earning the league’s No. 3 spot in the state playoffs. The loss ended the Knights’ season with a 5-15, 5-9 record.
Warriors coach Michael Howes decided to switch to a 4-5-1 formation the day before the game in hopes of playing more defensively and locking down the middle field in the absence of Johnny Odette, who was recovering from appendix surgery.
“We were trying to give (Dean) more support tonight, but he’s like a cat out there,” Howes said. “He has great hands. Other teams have to really work to score a goal on him.”
It was also a busy night for Knightdale keeper Brayan Abarca, who denied 14 of the Warriors’ 15 shots. The one that got past him came in the 20th minute, when Gerson Lazo took a feed from Cody Staples and toed it over Abarca for the decisive goal.
Offensively, the Knights came out flat in the first half before regrouping and testing the Warriors in the final 40 minutes.
“That’s been the story of our season,” Knights coach Andrew Vaglio said. “We play one good game, then two or three lazy games. We played better in the second half – a lot of missed opportunities in front of the goal. But East Wake deserved it, they played 80 minutes, not us.”
Knightdale’s Ryan Maze missed high on a face-off with Dean with 23 minutes to play. For the next four minutes, the Warriors cleared a spree of throw-ins by Knightdale senior captain Taylor Betts that landed within one-touch range of the East Wake goal.
Staples had a one-on-one chance at a cushion goal with 19 minutes left, but Abarca tipped it wide. Moments later, Layne Gairrett sent a deep shot off the cross bar, but Abarca kept the ball from crossing the plane. Abarca snagged another point-blank shot, by Lazo, with 13 minutes to play.
In the other goal, Dean survived a close call after a Ryan Nutsch corner kick in the 72nd minute. He then rejected a close-range touch Betts sent through the congestion in front of the goal with 3 minutes left, and saved a Betts free kick inside the 2-minute mark.
“I didn’t think one goal was going to be enough against these guys,” Howes said. “But you never know. You just try to do the best you can. Tonight was a high. I hope we can carry some of that into (the playoffs).”
Vaglio hopes his 17 Knights returning next year will use this season as a lesson on consistency.
“We need better leadership, play and effort,” Vaglio said. “We have talent. We just didn’t utilize it throughout the course of the year.”
Seeding for the 4A boys soccer playoffs was completed Monday. East Wake came out as the No. 21 overall seed in the East and will play at No. 12 Heritage (16-6-1) at 6 p.m. this Wednesday, Oct. 30.