By David Rogers. BOONE, N.C. — A dink here, a doink there… In many respects, Watauga Soccer’s 2-1 win over South Caldwell in the teams’ 2023 Northwestern Conference league opener could have gone either way. Although one team had to walk away the winner, the other in defeat, it was as entertaining of a high school soccer match as can be.
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With just over a minute to go in the first half, the Pioneers’ senior striker Omolade Oguntoyinbo came down the right side on a breakaway sprint, a Spartan defender pressuring from behind. Closing in on the penalty box, the action drew the South Caldwell goalkeeper out, away from the net in hopes of smothering the attack, but Oguntoyinbo lofted a shot over the goalkeeper’s desperate hands, the ball bounding into the left side of the net. The Pioneer goal broke what had been a hard-fought, scoreless tie to that point.
Watauga seemed to control possession for much of the game but the Spartans fought back to score their own goal on a header past Pioneer goalkeeper Kyle Painter, who had several difficult, if not spectacular saves over the course of the evening.
Early in the second half, Watauga’s Ben Myers slipped the ball past the South Caldwell goalkeeper for the Pioneers’ second tally — and what proved to be the match’s difference maker. Jossue Galan Alcaraz was credited with the assist.
At time, the Pioneers seemed to pass up clear shot opportunities from inside the penalty box, choosing instead to continue working the ball closer to the goal with the space advantage quickly evaporating.
Pioneer head coach Josh Honeycutt acknowledged after the match that not finishing attack opportunities remains a team problem.
“They didn’t get that from me!” Honeycutt smiled, in response to his players’ seeming reluctance to shoot with an open opportunity. “I was shooting every time I got the chance! It is a combination of things, I think. They watch Premier League too much on TV. There, you move the ball around, pass to the open man and move the ball (closer and closer) until it is just a tap for a goal. We had multiple guys who got the ball in dangerous positions. They have got to put the ball on frame and do it early. At this level there is likely to be a rebound if the ball doesn’t go in and someone should be there to tap it in.
“There is no finding the slot, working the ball into the corners like we are supposed to do. We’re working on those things,” added Honeycutt. “Tonight, the South Caldwell goalkeeper played pretty well but we made him look a little better because we put the ball right to him. If we execute a little better on our finishing, he is going to have a more difficult time defending.”
Honeycutt also paid compliments to South Caldwell, acknowledging the improvements in their play.
“That was surprising,” said Honeycutt. “They were much better than I thought they would be. Compared to previous years, they were much more developed, demonstrated an ability to possess and move the ball around. Their coach has been there three or four years now, I think, so the freshmen and sophomores when he joined the program are now his junior and senior leaders and know what he expects. They are buying in. It takes time to rebuild.”
The Spartans’ head coach, Rick Pilato said, “Both teams played extremely well. It was a hard fought game. We have wanted to play at this level and have finally gotten there. Watauga is a very good team, a very strong team, and we are going to be looking forward to them coming down the mountain for the rematch, for sure.
“We played hard. They were giving it all they’ve got and, as a coach, that is all you can ask for,” said Pilato. “There were some unfortunate bounces. We had two off the post. Sometimes you play real well but don’t get lucky. Other times you may not play quite as well, but you get lucky. Watauga played well. We played well. It certainly could have been a 0-0 or 1-1 game, or even 3-3. We take the positives from that and make sure the next time we are a little bit better.”
After an intentionally grueling early season schedule vs. state playoffs caliber, non conference opponents, Watauga is now 3-8-1, and 1-0 in Northwestern Conference play. They will try to keep the NWC league record unblemished on Sept. 25, when they host Alexander Central, another 4A contender in the conference.