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KENLY — Although at one point it looked like it might be, the third matchup on the year against North Johnston was not the charm for the North Lenoir boys soccer team Wednesday night.
Hosting the No. 25 seed Eagles in the first round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 2-A playoffs, the Panthers saw the best version of North Lenoir it had all season, but moved on to play another home game against East Bladen after bookending their night with a goal in each half.
Forward Andrew Stancil had the honors of scoring the first North Johnston goal, just over 17 minutes into the game, to give his team the advantage.
The goal came quickly and unexpectedly. North Lenoir had just stymied the Panther attack and moved the ball back away from the goal when Stancil stole the ball back about 10 yards out of the box, turned and put a powerful shot in the back of the net, beyond the grasp of diving goalkeeper Orlando Gallardo.
“After I got the ball from that defender, I saw the goalie was out a little bit and I just tried to power and chip it over his head,” Stancil explained. “I’m just glad it went in.”
Plenty more opportunities presented themselves the other 23 minutes of the half, but North Johnston could not close on another until halftime. In fact, after threatening all game, it would be almost another 45 minutes before the Panthers scored again, much to the dismay of head coach Winston Pennington when he chewed his team out at the half for having what he called “an off night.”
“(We were) trying to force it instead of letting it happen,” Pennington said. “They’ve got a couple good players, don’t get me wrong, but the quality of players we have when we keep the ball and play North Johnston soccer instead of impatient, direct soccer, we would have controlled the game and made it much easier.”
Put another way by Stancil, he thought his team tried to make every shot it took worthy of becoming a “pretty goal” instead of just focusing on scoring when it could.
The lack of another score by North Johnston left the lead vulnerable and at the 42:11 mark, North Lenoir forward Luis Cordova headed in a goal to tie the score at 1-1.
With the fate of eight seniors’ careers hanging in the balance, the Panthers turned it on once again. The vulnerability that gave the team the lead initially — punctuating on a chance when the goalie was out of position — was the same won that won the game for North Johnston.
Midway through the half, with 19:26 remaining, Gallardo came out of the box to sweep away the ball chased by the North Johnston attack that was nearing the goal.
Only the shot meant to push the ball far away was settled by Scott Sellers in the middle of the field, about 40 yards away from the goal — typically not where players consider taking shots.
“Everbody was yelling, ‘Shoot!’ and I’m like, ‘Why? I’m like far out,’” Sellers said. “Then I looked up and the goalie was out of the goal and I was like, ‘Oh, the goal is open,’ so I just hit it and I was just focused (on) don’t kick it over, don’t kick it over.”
The ball did not soar over the goal, but instead clanked off the lower half of the cross bar, hit the grass and bounced right back up into the top of the net. The game-winner stunned the crowd and eventually halted the playoff hopes of North Lenoir.
Sellers said after the game that the game-winning goal that allowed his team to advance to the second round was the second long shot he has made from long distance this season, scoring another against Carrboro from about the same distance earlier in the season.
He’s starting to develop a reputation for it.
“Scott is really good at making those,” Pennington said.
It wasn’t the highest-percentage shot the team took all night, but it worked. The rest of the way, North Johnston played keep away to capture the victory.
“We kept fighting,” Stancil said. “And then we eventually got the win.”