The road to Cary is down to the Elite Eight in all four classifications in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s boys soccer playoffs. Winners of tonight’s state quarterfinals are scheduled to meet next Tuesday in the regionals, which will determine the state championship matches to be held next Friday and Saturday at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary.
There are four teams from the three area conferences still alive. Out of the Northwestern 3A/4A, first-place Watauga and second-place Hickory will have tough road games. Should both survive, the two programs would play in the 3A West Regional.
All four top seeds made it through in the 2A quarterfinals with No. 2 seed and Northwestern Foothills champion Hibriten, as well as No. 1 seed and South Fork champion East Lincoln hosting matches tonight. Should those two win, East Lincoln would host Hibriten in the 2A West Regional.
Here is a look at tonight’s quarterfinals:
No. 12 Hickory (18-5-3) at No. 1 Charlotte Catholic (23-0-2)
If the adage “defense wins championships” is true, Hickory has as much as a shot to win the title as any of the other seven 3A schools remaining in the tournament. With just one goal allowed over the first three rounds, the Red Tornadoes advanced to their first quarterfinal since 2012 with an overtime win over Cuthbertson Wednesday night. In Wednesday’s match, goalkeeper Peyton Winkler held his ground against a furious attack over the final moments and collected his second straight shutout of the playoffs. Since a 3-2 loss to South Caldwell on Sept. 30, Hickory has surrendered seven goals over 11 matches, winning 10 of them. The Red Tornadoes have 14 shutouts this season.
The defensive effort has allowed Hickory to stay in matches until the offense could find a bounce to win. Juniors Carter Holt (23 goals) and Jose Vallecillos (16 goals) have scored the Red Tornadoes’ tallies in back-to-back 1-0 wins, with Vallecillos’ score coming in overtime to squeak by Cutherbertson on Wednesday.
Charlotte Catholic is among the premier boys soccer programs in the state with seven championships and a record 17 appearances in the state final. However, it’s been a while since the Cougars have tasted championship glory. The last title came in 2008 and the last finals appearance was in 2011. Although this is just their third quarterfinals match since 2011, opponents have needed valiant efforts to put them away. They were eliminated 1-0 in 2016 and 2018 and lost in overtime three straight years from 2013 to 2015. The last time Charlotte Catholic was in the regional round, it dropped a 1-0 decision to Hickory in 2012.
The Cougars advanced to tonight’s home match after shutting out Mount Tabor 3-0, their 13th shutout of the season. They have allowed 19 goals all season and have won 19 in a row since a tie against 4A third-round playoff team Providence. Senior Patrick Fenton leads the team with 26 goals on the season. Ryan Bayadi is the main playmaker with 13 assists. Bennett Lowder is the starter in goal for the Cougars.
Next up: No. 6 Watauga (18-5-1) or No. 2 Concord (24-1-2)
No. 6 Watauga (18-5-1) at No. 2 Concord (24-1-2)
During the early part of this season, Watauga was a team spinning its wheels. In back-to-back road matches against teams that are in the 4A state quarterfinals, the Pioneers lost to Northwest Guilford 1-0 and defeated Providence 3-0. Before that, they were blown out 5-0 by West Forsyth and had a loss and a tie in a Labor Day weekend tournament at home. The most surprising result was a shootout loss at St. Stephens that dropped them to 6-5-1. After that loss, Watauga has won 12 straight with a margin of 53-5 with eight shutouts. The Pioneers advanced to the quarterfinals after a 3-1 win over Statesville.
Watauga is in the state quarterfinals for the first time since 2012 and just the fourth time in school history. The Pioneers have not advanced past that point. According to Watauga High sports guru Mike Kelly, current coach Josh Honeycutt was a player on the 1998 and 1999 teams that got to the quarterfinals, but they lost to West Forsyth and Mount Tabor.
Since the brackets came out, Concord has likely circled this potential matchup. A year ago, the Spiders and Pioneers battled into the fourth overtime and it seemed certain to come down to a shootout. That was until Jair Alvarez scored with 33.2 seconds left to eliminate Concord in the second round. This year, Concord will host the match in what is its first quarterfinal appearance since 2010.
This figures to be a low-scoring match, as like Watauga, the Spiders are stingy on defense with just 15 goals allowed this year, eight during the current 15-match win streak.
Next up: No. 12 Hickory (18-5-3) or No. 1 Charlotte Catholic (23-0-2)
No. 4 Shelby (22-0-2) at No. 1 East Lincoln (25-0)
The final two 2A unbeatens in the state will meet to determine one of the West finalists.
These two teams played early-season matches frequently this decade with Shelby winning five of seven. However, in a prelude of what was to come, East Lincoln defeated Shelby 6-4 in the first match under new coach Billy Howell. Now in his second season with the Mustangs, Howell’s teams have scored 284 goals in 51 matches. East Lincoln isn’t just picking on the basement dwellers, it is lighting up playoff teams with 19 in three rounds. Against Hickory and Forest Hills this season, both currently in the quarterfinals, the Mustangs scored 10 goals.
The offense starts around Chase and Logan Gilley, who scored all seven goals in the win over Newton-Conover and have 106 combined this year. East Lincoln is fast and pass extremely well and it will take a stellar defensive effort to slow it down.
Is Shelby that team? It has allowed just 18 goals this year, though four of them have come in the last two playoff matches. The Golden Lions have given up more than one goal on four occasions this year, one of those in a 4-3 overtime win over Salisbury in the second round.
Shelby is trying to get back to its glory days, which included state titles in 2009 and 2010. After five West Regional appearances in a row starting in 2007, the Golden Lions haven’t been back. This is their first appearance in this round since 2013.
After its absence since 2011 from the quarterfinals, East Lincoln is back for a second straight year after a convincing 7-1 win over back-to-back 2A West champions Newton-Conover. The Mustangs have never advanced to the regional.
Next up: No. 3 Forest Hills (23-3) or No. 2 Hibriten (24-1-2)
No. 3 Forest Hills (23-3) at No. 2 Hibriten (24-1-2)
Last year, Hibriten scored 134 goals in moving into the program’s first quarterfinal since 2008. With the top two scorers Kevin Pineda and Nijat Tahirli lost to graduation, coach Jim Blanton had to replace 66 goals. The Panthers did that and now enter this match with 121 scored including 14 in the three rounds of the playoffs, which included a 6-1 rout of West Iredell on Wednesday. The top three scorers are two sophomores, Daniel Franquiz (25 goals) and Kevin Rios (20), and freshman Gerardo Rodriguez (19). Combined with sophomore goalkeeper Mack Waters, who has allowed just 27 goals in 24 matches, the Panthers could be regular visitors to this round and beyond the next couple of years. A win would put the Panthers in the regional final for the first time since 2005.
Forest Hills returns with payback in mind after Hibriten shut it out 3-0 in the third round last year. The Yellow Jackets have just 11 playoff wins all-time, five of them coming the last two seasons. They advanced through the three rounds by a margin of 17-2, including a 3-0 over Surry Central. The leading scorers are Jamarcus Timmons (32 goals) and Eduardo Casarrubia (27).
Next up: No. 4 Shelby (22-0-2) or No. 1 East Lincoln (25-0)