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Demons back in front in Big East

Fike tames Firebirds 3-1 to reclaim conference lead

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Fike High freshman goalkeeper Mason Ross meets the textbook definition of soft-spoken.

But any lack of oratorical content is more than offset by his flexibility in front of the net for the Golden Demons.

In a 3-1 Fike victory Wednesday night over Southern Nash to open up the second half of 3-A Big East Conference play, Ross helped keep the Demons in front as the Firebirds tried to claw back into the match off the strength of set pieces and a penalty kick.

Yet for the second time in four attempts this season, Ross turned away an opponent at point-blank range.

With 10:41 remaining and Fike leading by the eventual final score, the Demons (10-3-1, 4-1-1 Big East) were whistled for a foul at the top of the penalty box. Seconds ticked by before play was finally stopped, giving the Firebirds (12-2-2, 4-2 Big East) a chance to cut Fike’s margin to a single goal.

It never happened.

Ross guessed correctly on the direction of Southern Nash senior Jared Gonzalez’s kick, diving to erase the attempt. The ensuing deflection resulted in nothing of consequence, and it was the last major crack at goal for the Firebirds.

“We got through the rough spots,” Ross said. “We fought back and did what we had to do.”

That fighting back allowed the Demons to ascend into sole possession of first place in the Big East as the only league team with one loss. Rocky Mount, which tied Fike on Sept. 30 after darkness settled over the Gryphons’ field and prevented overtime from being played, knocked off Franklinton 2-1 in other Wednesday action.

Therefore, Fike, which hasn’t lost in its last five matches, remained the only team to defeat Southern Nash after opening each half of the Big East schedule with wins over the Firebirds. The Demons, who lost 2-1 to Franklinton on Sept. 25, received a substantial boost in their bid to repeat as conference champions as they square off with the Red Rams on Monday.

Ross, who had six of his seven saves in the second half, also turned away the potent free kick leg of Gonzalez with 12:52 remaining, deflecting a shot over the crossbar that was seemingly postmarked for the upper-left corner.

“He’s what, 12 games into a high school career right now?” Fike head coach Chris Mizelle marveled. “And he’s played fantastic. I can’t enough good things about him. He trains hard and he’s not the most vocal kid, but he gets it done. He keeps us in a lot of games and makes some big plays with we need him.”

As the Firebirds increased their pressure after falling down 3-0, Gonzalez pulled one back for Southern on his free-kick conversion with 20:42 remaining. Southern Nash attempted to run junior striker Adrian Flores down the middle of the field consistently in the second half, only to be met by stiff resistance from the Demons. Some of that resistance came in the form of fouls, with Fike getting a pair of yellow cards in the final fourth of the match.

Fike had to navigate a slim bench with freshman Devin Whitehead, junior Cole Peterson and junior Glen Arellano-Betancourt nursing injuries. Peterson played limited minutes.

The Demons dominated play in the opening half despite getting only one goal out of the proceedings. Southern Nash put just one shot on frame, and after promising buildup from Fike, it finally cashed in when sophomore Taylor Sullivan slid a through ball to junior Gavin Wheeler on the counterattack. Wheeler drew a one-one-one against Southern junior keeper Eliel Benitez, slotting it away for the 1-0 advantage that stood into halftime.

“We could have held the midfield a little better, that’s for sure,” Southern Nash head coach Carlos Barron lamented. “But I’m of the way the boys fought until the very end. We got a late goal and we definitely put a lot of pressure on them. We definitely made them earn it. They didn’t just walk in here and get it.”

Wheeler, who finished with two goals, put away a bouncing ball as a result of a corner kick in the 54th minute. That put the Demons up 3-0, and sophomore Isaac Puente-Castro pounced on a Firebirds giveaway to give his team the two-goal cushion in the 46th.

Fike’s cushion proved to be necessary as the Firebirds, in Barron’s estimation, played quicker and got into their attack more efficiently in the second half. However, when Fike needed a defensive answer, Ross was on the scene — especially on the PK.

“I saw (Gonzalez) looking the other way real hard,” Ross said. “That’s when I knew he wasn’t going there.”

Rocky Mount looms as the opposition next Wednesday for Senior Night following Franklinton.

“We’ve got three very tough ones coming up,” Mizelle said. “Next week is going to kind of be a make-or-break type of week. I hope we get some good training in and get some guys rested.”

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