Spears Culpepper and Eder Ozuna

Hickory's Spears Culpepper (22) and Newton-Conover's Eder Ozuna battle for ball control early in the first half Thursday in Hickory.

The Hickory High boys soccer team came into Thursday night’s nonconference match against Newton-Conover with extra motivation. With that at hand, the Red Tornadoes dominated the visiting Red Devils 3-0.

The victory for Hickory snapped a three-match losing streak against the defending 2A West Region champions and sent the Red Devils (5-1) to their first loss of the season. Hickory (4-2-2) last defeated Newton-Conover in 2015.

“The boys were up for this game,” said Red Tornadoes head coach Brian Jillings. “(Newton-Conover head coach) Angelo (Palozzi) and his program is one of the premier programs in the state — state championships and championship appearances. So it’s a good marker to see where we’re at.”

Jillings later added, "They performed to the level that was required to play such a good team.”

Palozzi admitted that his squad was back on its heels much of the evening. He also said that the Red Devils didn't match the team cohesion that Hickory showed.

“We had a bad game ourselves and made poor decisions and tried a lot of individual stuff,” said Palozzi. “They took it to us right from the beginning. Offensively and defensively, they worked the whole as a team.”

Palozzi felt the loss was one his squad needed at this point of the season.

“You come in undefeated and MaxPreps gives you a number one in the state ranking,” explained Palozzi. “It’ll bring the guys back down and know they can be beat. It’s good that we lose now instead of later.”

Set up by the midfielders, much of the action in the match was played with the Red Tornadoes on the attack. Hickory outshot Newton-Conover 10-4 on the night.

After Hickory missed a pair of scoring chances early, the Red Tornadoes finally connected in the 15th minute. Patrick Ceccato made a run up the center of the field before a short pass to the left hit Jose Vallecillos in stride. Vallecillos then rolled a wide-angle shot into the bottom right corner of the net.

Newton-Conover finally got its chance on goal with a series of three corner kicks in the 25th and 26th minutes. All three set pieces found the heads of Newton-Conover attackers within 10 yards of the net, but all were deflected away.

The Red Devils' best chance to get even came early in the second half when Newton-Conover was awarded a free kick at the top of the half circle. Noel Fong took the kick, which found a seam in the Red Tornadoes' wall, but was cradled near the goal line by keeper Peyton Winkler.

With the momentum back at hand, the Red Tornadoes continued to attack and finally doubled the lead in the 54th minute. A series of passes ended when Jeremiah Bush set up Carter Holt, who veered around a Red Devils defender and scored.

“We scored some great team goals,” said Jillings. “Carter’s goal gave us a little breathing room. We strung a couple of passes together and sprung him loose and he had a great finish.”

Palozzi thought missing the free kick before Hickory responded was a crucial point of the match.

“That’s the thing, it doesn’t go our way and they put their heads down,” said Palozzi. “They expected other people to be back there and people aren’t back. They counter and they get us.”

Four minutes later, Ceccato took a long ball at the top of the box and outmaneuvered three defenders before sticking the shot into the top right corner.

The win was the second in a row for the Red Tornadoes, who lost the opener to East Lincoln, which is expected to challenge Newton-Conover for the South Fork 2A Conference title. Jillings said his team has had peaks and valleys, as well as injury troubles.

“It’s been a next-guy-up mentality,” the Red Tornadoes coach said. “And those guys have risen to the challenge…They’ve shown some resilience, but that’s how the season works. There’s ups and downs, but you try to keep them on as even a keel as possible.”

Hickory travels to Patton on Monday, while Newton-Conover hosts Fred T. Foard next Thursday.

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