By David Rogers for HighCountrySports.com
BOONE, N.C. — Across the Watauga men’s soccer roster, there are some really fast, exceptionally skilled student-athletes. Against Ardrey Kell at Jack Groce Stadium on Sept. 19, the Pioneers met their match — and then some.
The visiting Knights took home a 4-0 shutout against what the team’s head coach, Rob Dalton, explained after the match was much needed: stiffer competition — and that was exactly what they found in Watauga.
“I was pleased with our performance tonight,” said Dalton. “In our conference we have had some less than competitive games recently. So we were looking forward to coming up here to Boone and having a much more competitive game. And Watauga gave us just that. Our guys were on it from the beginning and we obviously got the good start with a penalty kick in the first minute. I don’t think we took our foot off the accelerator for the full 90 minutes. We are still building. When others see this result against a very well coached and capable Watauga side, it may not send shockwaves (around the state) but it will raise a few eyebrows. Watauga is that good.”
From a momentum standpoint, the visitors benefited from a penalty kick awarded to them when the starting whistle had barely faded into the early autumn night. The Knights’ senior captain Quinn McGuire sent the ball past Watauga’s goalkeeper, Kyle Painter, for the opening salvo.
On attack, Ardrey Kell was relentless, peppering the Watauga-defended net with shots. Against most High Country and regional opponents, Watauga is fast to the ball and quickly finding teammates with one-touch passing to move the ball into space. The Knights were, simply put, faster and equally skilled. They were also effective in disrupting nearly every Pioneer possession.
Said Dalton, “It is difficult for the opposition, once you are all over them, to break the stranglehold.”
Watauga head coach Josh Honeycutt knew full well what his charges would be facing against Ardrey Kell and, despite the loss, knew that his team benefited in the long run from this non-conference scheduling.
“Ardrey Kell is a really good team,” acknowledged Honeycutt after the game. “We may not have played our best game, but we didn’t play badly. What happened tonight is that we played a really good team that could move the ball really well. They were solid defensively. They threw numbers in on attack and had a lot of good speed. Hopefully, we learned that to battle, to fight, to continue to grind with another good team… We had good moments.”
For much of the game, the Watauga players in general moved away from their patented one-touch passing that they have exhibited so skillfully against other opponents. It wasn’t until the last 13 minutes that those combinations worked to put real pressure on Ardrey Kell’s defense.
“Yeah, that is one thing we talked about at halftime,” said Honeycutt. “You can’t hold onto the ball and take so many touches. Keep the ball moving, let the ball do the work. Take one or two touches and make the defense shift. We didn’t do a great job of that tonight but credit to Ardrey Kell, they didn’t allow us, really, with their pressure to connect a whole lot of passes. A lot of that was them but a lot of it was us holding the ball too long.”
The outcome could have been much worse if not for the athletic Painter’s diving this way and that to record 10 saves on the night.
At the other end, Watauga could do little against the Knights’ defense. The Pioneers recorded only one shot on goal during the 90 minutes, by junior midfielder Andrew Hill.
According to MaxPreps.com, Ardrey Kell was the No. 18-ranked team in the entire state of North Carolina last season and the No. 8 team in the North Carolina 4A West region, when they recorded a 14-4-4 season, losing to Cornelius-based Hough in the fourth round of the 4A state playoffs. At 6-3-1 this year, so far, that ranking has slipped only a little while posting a 4-0 record to date in the 4A South Mecklenburg Conference, which includes Myers Park, South Mecklenburg, Palisades, Berry, Olympic, and Harding high schools.
“If we are going to win a state championship,” said Honeycutt, “Ardrey Kell is the kind of team we are going to have to beat.”
As good as this game was played, it was marred to an extent by a total of five yellow cards and 10 called fouls. Normally, there are three officials, a primary referee and two sideline judges. Only two officials were assigned to call this match, each having to not only be in position to call offsides, when they occurred, at the extreme ends of the field, but also to monitor what was going on in the middle of the field. Under that kind of pressure, the officials appeared to lose patience with the players in the second half, either backtalking or kicking the ball away after the whistle had blown.
“This is the first time we have played with only two officials and it is unfortunate that for this competitive of a match the full complement could not have been assigned. In conference play in Charlotte, we would not play without three officials. We would wait for the third to begin play,” said Dalton, suggesting how important it is to have three.
Next competition for Watauga (2-7-1 overall, 0-0 NWC) is on Sept. 21, at home against another strong non-conference opponent in Concord-Cox Mill (8-0-4), before beginning Northwestern Conference play on Sept. 26, also at home against South Caldwell (5-1-2, 0-0). Ardrey Kell resumes league play on Sept. 22 against Palisades (2-5-1, 1-2).