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The journey to Fike High’s second straight 3-A Big East Conference varsity boys soccer championship was far from a sure thing for the Golden Demons.
But when the attacking third needed a boost in a critical moment, junior forward Gavin Wheeler was typically on the scene.
With increased attention paid to midfielders such as senior Kevin Mendoza, Wheeler, who made a quick imprint as a freshman, was given additional room to operate.
Opponents ended up regretting that decision.
Wheeler concluded his junior campaign with 22 goals and adding 12 assists, making him the consensus choice for Big East Player of the Year as voted on by the league’s six head coaches.
“His stats were, far and away, much better than anyone else in the conference,” Fike head coach Chris Mizelle said. “He was a big reason why we were able to have the success that we did have in the conference.”
Fike, in finishing 17-5-1 and 7-2-1 in Big East, ended up funneling a healthy portion of its offense through Wheeler, with fellow all-conference selections Mendoza and junior John T. Conoley and sophomore Taylor Sullivan funneling through the midfield. A Fike attack that was maligned by Mizelle himself for its lack of putting away opportunities still had four players finish the year with double-digit goal totals in Wheeler, Mendoza (17), Sullivan (15) and sophomore Isaac Puente-Castro (10).
“Taylor and Kevin are exciting players,” Wheeler said. “Kevin is really, realy good. He found me with through balls. He always created some with Taylor, and they were really good helping me create chances to get shots off.”
Wheeler put away nine finishes as a freshman and had 10 goals as a sophomore playing with Mendoza and the decorated Myles Cyrus. Mendoza also had 17 goals as a junior, but the added attention played a role in Wheeler’s development.
“I think he sees the game a little bit better about how to stretch the field and thinks ahead about how to create an opportunity,” Mizelle said of Wheeler. “He doesn’t just sit and wait, and that’s been a big improvement for him. Physically, he’s made some big strides there and I think he’s a lot more comfortable in front of goal, picks his shot out and does a really good job of deciding when he wants to use power and when he wants to use a little more finesse and placement. All qualities you’re looking for when you’re talking about a high-quality finisher.”
Wheeler, who had four game-winning goals in 2019, counts among his go-ahead finishes in conference both finishes in a 2-1 win at Southern Nash, as well as the game-winner in the Big East tournament final against Franklinton after the Demons dropped both regular-season outcomes to the Red Rams — an outcome that wrestled control of their championship destiny out of their hands.
“When the moment was needed and we needed to find a goal, he was able to weave his way in there and figure out how to put one away for us,” Mizelle said. “If you want to have some success and you want to win some championships, it’s really important to have a kid like that. Lucky for us, Gavin stepped into that role in a big way this year.
A senior season awaits in 2020, but before then, Wheeler will tend to his club responsibilities at North Carolina Football Club ‘03 Gold.
“I think he’s going to obviously have to hold some of that burden next year of being a playmaker again,” Mizelle said. “I think he’ll be able to handle it just fine and continue his improvement.”
BIG EAST ALL-CONFERENCE
In addition to Wheeler, Fike placed five players on the Big East all-conference team, including senior defender Mason Lee and sophomore defender Oc Bolt.
Lee tallied three goals on the offensive end, while Bolt put away a penalty kick for the Demons.
Sullivan had four game-winning tallies among his 15 goals, with Mendoza accounting for five go-ahead goals that led to victories.
Conoley, in his distribution role, had a pair of goals out of midfield.
Southern Nash, which tied for second alongside Franklinton with 16-5-2 overall record and 7-3 Big East mark, was represented by senior Rubinson Ochoa, sophomore Ramiro Rangel, senior defender Tony Gomez and sophomore Jared Gonzalez.
Ochoa tallied 18 goals and an assist to pace the Firebirds offensively, with Gonzalez adding 15. Rangel, from the defensive third, had a pair of goals and three assists.
Fifth-place Hunt, at 3-16-1 and 2-8 in conference play, placed senior goalkeeper Ty Philpott and senior defender Landon Gesell.
The Warriors did turn in a 2-1 win at Franklinton that helped flip the Big East in the direction of the Demons.
Franklinton was led on the all-conference rolls by midfielder Lucas Martinez, defender Jay Bright, defender Josiah Caroma, goalkeeper Galen Day and defender Sam Gupton.
Rocky Mount, at 13-6-2 and 5-4-1 in conference showings, had forward Quinton Mangano, goalkeeper Lucas Martinz and defender Ben Sieracki.
Northern Nash, at 2-13-2 in all matches and 1-9 in the league, placed defender Will Bazemore and midfielder Evan Sanford.
Honorable mention selections went to Fike freshman goalkeeper Mason Ross, Southern Nash junior forward Lalyn Herndon, Franklinton defender Hayden Johnson, Rocky Mount defender Gabriel Asbell and Northern Nash forward Garrett White.
Rocky Mount head coach Drew Nick, making his return to the sideline, was named the league’s Coach of the Year after turning the Gryphons’ fortunes around from a 4-14-1 (2-8 Big East) showing a season ago to winning overall and conference showings.