By Ruben Lowman
The dramatic scene was set for a primetime matchup between the top two boys soccer teams in Region VI-4A even before they took the field in Little River last Thursday night, as a thunderstorm warning and lightning strikes had many wondering if the game would even take place.
As the skies opened up, rain poured down and lightning struck, halting the JV game and leaving the much-anticipated varsity rematch between the North Myrtle Beach Chiefs and the West Florence Knights in doubt. The lightning eventually stopped and the night sky brought calm weather, thankfully allowing for the game to go ahead.
Because what a game it was.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the game against West Florence. We lost to them a few weeks ago, but I feel like we played better in that game than the score gave us credit for,” said NMB head coach Brian Smith. “West is in top form this season, and we’ve worked hard on improving the areas of our game where we came up short.”
West Florence, the number four ranked team in S.C. Class 4A when the game began, came out of the traps quick.
The Knights tried to hit the Chiefs before they were prepared, and it caught them slightly off guard. A quick free-kick won in NMB’s half was turned into a second-minute goal for the visitors, after a good save by Chiefs goalkeeper Nolan Long pushed the shot onto the crossbar, but Knights midfielder Sonner Ward was right there to poke home the rebound.
The Chiefs responded immediately.
NMB midfielder Kyle Nicholl, who has been playing in more advanced positions on the field in recent games after a masterstroke of an alteration by Smith, opened the scoring once again. In the fourth minute, Nicholl popped up on the left side of the six-yard box and Chiefs winger Luca Testa swung in an excellent cross that Nicholl headed home.
“My first goal was important because it came right after they scored on us,” said Nicholl. “Luca played a perfect ball in the box and I just needed my head to get in the way.”
Game on. 1-1.
NMB midfielders Ben Lewis and Albert Arguijo started to combine in central areas and work the ball to captain and playmaker Jesse Foster, who ran himself into the ground yet again and continuously looked to play the Chiefs forward in search of goals.
Arguijo was everywhere, the pit-bull of the Chiefs entire team, cutting out passing angles and breaking up play, then spreading the ball out to his open teammates. NMB full-backs Braydon Baeli and Jackson Adler, along with forwards Testa and Gavin Cartwright, led the press from the front, closing down on the ball and exemplifying the heart and desire the Chiefs played with all night.
After 35 minutes, a warning bell for the Knights. Excellent ball movement saw Foster find Nicholl down the left. Nicholl’s cutback reached Arguijo just outside the box, who was able to place his shot on target.
The cracks were starting to show in the Knights armor.
Next possession for the Chiefs, the Knights defense was breached. Nicholl spread the ball out wide to Foster on the left, who showed superb technique to cushion the ball down and cut it back for Cartwright to get a poacher’s finish from the left side of the box.
The Chiefs were fired up and their passionate supporters were on their feet.
Score 2-1 at halftime to the Chiefs. NMB had the majority of possession and saw the better opportunities throughout the first half, West Florence barely putting up much of an attack after their early goal. NMB kept putting West Florence under relentless pressure, which the Knights began to have more and more problems with as the night progressed. The second half would see the dam break after the earlier downpour.
“We play for each other,” was the Chiefs rallying cry in the huddle as the second half started.
Quick build-up play saw Baeli get down the right flank and swing in a sniper’s cross into the box, picking out Foster, who looked for a flick-on to a teammate to no avail. Good hustle after by Foster again to chase down West Florence’s star forward Jaryd Walton broke up a promising attack for the Knights.
But a second goal from Ward after 12 minutes brought the score level again. Long got a strong hand to Ward’s shot from outside of the box for the Chiefs, but it snuck past him and into the net. 2-2.
The drama was set. The stage was there. Enter the heroes. Hail to the Chiefs.
Captain Foster stepped up first, scoring an unbelievable, highlight-reel goal off a free-kick from well outside the box after 13 minutes. Foster’s technique was exquisite, perfectly placing and bending the ball past the Knights 6’3” goalkeeper Zach Way. Foster got his own Gladiator moment in front of the diehard Chiefs fans.
3-2 North Myrtle Beach.
“To score a goal on the night was great, it was a memorable one for sure,” Foster said. “I’m very happy with not only my own but every individual’s performance on our team. Not one player had a bad night out there.”
An excellent save from Long on a shot from just outside the box by Knights striker Jack Kitchen prevented the ball from going right into the bottom left corner and leveling the scores again.
“It was a really fun game and I loved every minute of it,” Long said.
Next up – Testa. A pass played down the right flank by Foster found Testa, who did great work to fight off his defender and turn on the ball, lofting in a perfect goal over the keeper and into the back of the net with his left boot.
Simply stunning. 4-2 Chiefs.
“I always try my best to help the team, as every player needs to give 100 percent for the team if we want to win,” Testa said. “I was beyond happy to score a goal with the impact it had, and to help the team win after everything we have gone through this season is a dream come true.”
Nicholl’s turn again. Quick link-up play through the middle with Arguijo and Foster found a pass out wide to Nicholl advancing down the left side of the box, who skipped past his defender and calmly slotted the ball past the keeper into the right corner of the net.
With 12 minutes left on the clock, the Chiefs were now thrashing one of the best teams in the state, 5-2.
“The three goals by Gavin, Jesse and Luca are some of the best we have seen all season,” Nicholl said. “And then I was happy to get the fifth and final goal to seal the deal and get the win.”
The Knights started to get chippy as they grew more and more frustrated. As the final whistle sounded, they saw their undefeated season in region play vanish into thin air, just like the earlier downpour that eventually brought calm skies.
North Myrtle Beach is now 10-4 (8-2 in Region VI-4A), with a firm grip on second place in the region. They have proven to themselves and everyone else in the Palmetto State that they can not only play with anyone, but they can actually dominate them in style and win big while doing it. The Chiefs were full of confidence after their big win.
“Beating a strong West Florence side leaves each player on the team excited and confident towards the back end of the season, as this win shows if we play up to our ability we can defeat any team,” Testa said.
Long said it felt amazing to win, especially given how much animosity existed between the two teams after the Chiefs took exception to the Knights trash talking them after their defeat in Florence earlier this season.
“A result like this against a team like West Florence is the confidence booster we need,” Foster said. “We knew we had the ability to beat any top teams, and this is just one showcase of our ability.”
Nicholl last week highlighted that Smith had switched some of the players’ positions a little bit, which gave him more freedom out in space on the left wing to work his magic on the ball. Nicholl said the Chiefs 3-0 loss in West Florence earlier in the season didn’t truly reflect how close the game really was. He was humble after the game, highlighting the team effort.
“It was an incredible team win for the Chiefs to take down the undefeated Knights, as every player on the field stepped up and played a great game,” Nicholl said. “The key to this win was once we conceded each of the two goals, our team didn’t give up and scored immediately after each goal to gain the momentum back.”
Nicholl now has five goals in the last three games for the Chiefs, and has scored the opener in all of them. It’s safe to say Smith’s tweak is a stroke of genius by the first-year NMB coach, a move that has helped them reel off four consecutive dominant wins, highlighted by their destruction of West Florence.
“We had confidence entering this home game that we could win,” Nicholl said.
The victory over the Knights was a statement from the Chiefs to the rest of class 4A. Testa said the players were happy to be able to display that level of performance in front of their dedicated and loyal fans, many of whom make it to every game home and away, no matter how long the drive.
“Our team is beyond proud of our performance against one of the best teams in the state,” Testa said. “We knew we needed to give one of our best performances to beat this team and we are glad we could do it in front of our supporters.”
The Chiefs now know they have the capability to not only match up with anyone, but comprehensively dominate them, to them apart and shut them down. Foster said they plan on performing this way for the rest of the season.
“It was a dominant win and we fought every last minute for the result,” Foster said. “We knew from the start of the season that we had the talent to win every game we approached, now we are here to prove that.”
Both teams came into the game missing a few key players, most importantly for the Chiefs central defender and captain Jay Langeneck, who went down with a possible LCL sprain against South Florence. He is due to be re-assessed this week and given a diagnosis. Nicholl highlighted the excellent play of defenders Shane Monahan and Seth Chapman and the entire backline against the Knights in Langeneck’s absence. Long said the game will help the team build momentum for important games to come.
“I think it will really help us get momentum for the playoffs and Myrtle Beach and unlocked part of the team that we knew we had but just never came out,” Long said.
Confidence is key for the Chiefs going forward, Smith said, as is believing in themselves. NMB has scored the sixth-most goals in the state, demonstrating Smith’s attacking mentality and his players’ deep reservoirs of skills and ability. When they believe, they can put in dominant performances against anyone, which is paramount for Smith with the playoffs on the horizon.
“This performance was important for our plans for the rest of the season. It’s as much about confidence as it is about ‘Belief,’” Smith said. “This group of players know that I believe in them, so being able to express our identity against a top team goes a long way towards the players believing in themselves.”
Smith said that over the next week the Chiefs have a little bit of time scheduled off for spring break and so the boys could enjoy important high school experiences like prom, held last week, and the senior trip coming up.
NMB will return to the field to take on rival Myrtle Beach for a heated rematch next Tuesday night, April 19, at Doug Shaw Memorial Stadium. A couple non-region home games against Socastee and Waccamaw follow to keep the Chiefs fit and firing, and in the form they showed against West Florence as the season moves into the state playoffs.
“I don’t know if anyone expected us to dominate the way we did, but that feeling is important to carry us into the playoffs,” midfielder Nicholl said.