By Ruben Lowman
Playing the Myrtle Beach Seahawks at Doug Shaw Memorial Stadium is never easy.
For the North Myrtle Beach Chiefs boys soccer team, it has been a daunting task over the past decade, as playing their biggest rival has been rather one-sided. The Seahawks have dominated region play no matter what class or region they are in, and despite this season being a slight down year for the program, they are still one of the best teams in the state.
Coming into their primetime matchup with the Seahawks last Tuesday night, the Chiefs were sporting a 10-4 record (8-2 in Region VI-4A) with their last game a dominant victory over the top team in the region, West Florence. With the rivalry match against Myrtle Beach sandwiched between prom and the senior trip, it was always going to be a tricky away game for the Chiefs and head coach Brian Smith.
The Seahawks came out of the gates at home with the confidence of longtime region top dogs, as they looked to take advantage of their star striker Mathi Ott’s speed and skill on the ball.
Time and time again early on the Seahawks defenders and midfielders looked for Ott stretching the Chiefs backline, and eventually they got their reward. Two early breakaway goals from Ott in the fifth and eighth minutes brought out the nerves for the Chiefs. Then, a mixup at the back saw a bouncing ball pounced on by Seahawks midfielder Diego Perez-Castillo, who poked it home from close range to give Myrtle Beach a 3-0 lead with a quarter of an hour gone from the clock.
Not a good start for the Chiefs, who hoped to bring the intensity to the game but were undone by a few mistakes early. In the second half, Ott completed his hat-trick after 56 minutes, and a Jaheim Watson goal made it 5-0 Myrtle Beach and gave the Chiefs no opportunity to mount a late comeback.
North Myrtle Beach posed a threat numerous times after conceding the early goals, but they weren’t quite able to find that final ball that they have taken so confidently during their recent four-game winning streak.
Chiefs Jesse Foster and Kyle Nicholl looked to create from midfield, but the Seahawks attempted to swarm them every time they came near the ball. It was clear the Seahawks were trying to mark the Chiefs main creative engines out of the game and nullify their influence. As a result, defensive midfielder Albert Arguijo was forced to venture further out of midfield to progress the ball and that made them vulnerable on the counter. An all-state selection at striker, Ott took full advantage, scoring a hat-trick in Myrtle Beach after going for four in Little River.
After the disappointing loss to their biggest rivals, the Chiefs took on a familiar opponent from the old 3A region days, the Socastee Braves. Socastee, a perennial power in Region VI-5A, has proven a tricky matchup despite having a down year for the program.
Having already beaten the Braves in the season-opening Michael Nash tournament, the Chiefs were fully confident heading into the matchup, despite losing most of their starters to the high school’s senior trip. With the regular captains being on the trip, attacker Luca Testa got a chance to wear the armband for the Chiefs.
“It was a dream come true to be able to be captain my senior year, as every practice I work hard for every player on our team,” Testa said. “That was just extra for me, as no matter what, I put my all into this team.”
Both teams began the game attempting to play out from the back, with the Chiefs having more possession and better ball movement but looking like a team learning how to play together.
With a makeshift frontline of juniors Kevin Lemus and Jo’an Garcia Hernandez up front with Testa, it was always going to take some time to build up the connections needed in order to play forward like they set out to. The Chiefs looked to dominate the ball and control the proceedings completely, and NMB worked through some of the early jitters and nervousness to begin to assert themselves.
Sophomores Shane Monahan and Alex Testa were impressive in central defense for NMB, making sure to squeeze the space and narrow the angle for Socastee’s attackers and shepherding any trouble out of play. Brayden Dennis and Jacob DeFlieger were also impressive out wide at fullback for the Chiefs. Braydon Baeli, Ty Wulder and Albert Arguijo were always looking to make space for themselves and their teammates in central midfield areas.
Chiefs sophomore goalkeeper Nolan Long made an excellent save on a strong shot by Socastee from outside the box, and then the Chiefs got their due reward for the pressure they kept applying to the Braves defenders. A penalty off a handball by the Braves, as they attempted to stop an excellent attack and build-up play by the Chiefs to get a good look at goal.
After working the ball around, Arguijo picked up the ball in the middle and got his marker off balance, passing into Luca Testa up top. Testa danced by a couple defenders to advance to the left side of the penalty area and crossed the ball into DeFlieger making a late run, who just missed it. But a handball gave Baeli a penalty, which he calmly slotted away beyond the keeper and into the right corner.
North Myrtle Beach with the 1-0 lead after 35 minutes.
Junior attacker Chad Topping was trying to make things happen from his left wing position, drifting into central areas. Good ball movement by the Chiefs as a team, clearly working on trying to make connections with each other that will be there for the playoffs. With many of the seniors off on the class senior trip, Smith gave his second team a chance to play from the start, which also included senior stalwarts Luca Testa, Arguijo and Baeli.
Chiefs dominating the ball in the second half, camped out in the Braves half and looking to make things happen. Then, the sucker punch.
A Socastee goal from outside the box, as the Braves attackers took it down on the turn after 58 minutes and firing a rocket into the corner of the net, bringing the scores level against the run of play.
The game began to grow a little testy as the onetime region rivals looked to grab the upper hand. Lemus and Charlie Pfahler both took heavy hits and went down for the Chiefs, the Braves clearly looking to play rough. Monahan followed with good defending to take a tactical foul just outside the box, with the Braves advancing and closing on the Chiefs goal. The resulting free kick was well over the bar for the Braves.
The Chiefs kept working the ball around and advancing down the field through Luca Testa with numerical superiority and getting a couple corners that were close to finding Chiefs players in the box. Testa then got a half chance after he dribbled by three Braves defenders on the right side of the box, and Deflieger looked to play through Hernandez from right back, doing a pirouette and getting free of his marker.
Good build-up play with Monahan and Baeli getting involved through the middle and sending a throughball down to Hernandez on the right after 75 minutes nearly brought NMB back ahead. The Chiefs looked to make something happen as the clock ticked down but they headed into extra time, where they narrowly lost out to the Braves on penalties.
The Chiefs now move into the last week of the regular season with a tough match against the Waccamaw Warriors, one of the best 3A teams in the state. Smith said the team will look to use this week to get back into their routines and tune-up for the playoffs.
“We’ve had some important players out of training over the past two weeks with spring break and then the senior trip,” Smith said. “I’d like to see them get back into a rhythm in these last two games. Fortunately Waccamaw is an excellent opponent to help us prepare.”
As the number one seed in Region VII, the Warriors (12-5, 6-0) are already a lock to host their first three playoff games in Pawleys Island if they make it that far. Foster said the Chiefs will look to use the game as a springboard for success heading into the playoffs.
“These two games this week are to be seen as business as usual,” Foster said. “I have faith in us to grab the convincing results we need and to set a statement going into playoffs off of a good week.”
Smith said the Chiefs will look to nullify the potent threat of Waccamaw’s star attackers, junior Chris Gibson and sophomore Trey Jones, who have combined for 47 goals so far on the season.
“Waccamaw is strong and will only get better over the next couple years,” said Smith. “I’ve known and coached Rivers Krask for years, and he’s one of the best players along the coast. Chris Gibson is dangerous up front, and Trey Jones is an electrifying young player.”
One thing the Chiefs have been working on lately is pressing, Testa said, and they will be looking to close down the Warriors defenders at every opportunity.
“We hope to score early and put the pressure on them right from the start,” Testa said.
“We play every team believing they are the best, with that mindset, we all have the mentality to play with our hearts on the lines,” Foster said. “We are all very confident going into tomorrow’s game.”
The game versus Waccamaw will be followed by the Chiefs final region match away at Darlington. Then the first round of the playoffs start next Monday, with the second and third rounds to be played next Wednesday and Friday.
North Myrtle Beach’s season now comes down to these next few weeks, which will partially hinge on where their playoff seeding falls. Currently, the Chiefs sit alone in second place in Region VI-4A with a 8-3 record, but Myrtle Beach and South Florence are both 7-3, with a game against each other that will likely decide who grabs the second seed.
“With the uncertainty of who we’ll play in the playoffs we’re focused on our principles and finding our flow again,” Smith said. “We’re trying to ramp up the intensity and speed of play in training, but it’s nearly impossible to replicate game speed. We’re also focusing on our mentality.”
Whether the Chiefs secure the second or third seed, they can rest assured they will be guaranteed at least one home playoff game either way. Testa said he was excited for the chance to play in front of their supporters one last time.
“I have never had the chance to have a home game for playoffs, so I am super excited to be able to play a tough match in front of our supporters,” Testa explained. “With them it feels as if we have 12 players on the field, and they always give us an advantage in every game.”
All the Chiefs can do is put forward the results necessary to put them in the best position for the playoffs, Foster said, adding that they will focus on where they are after they take care of business this week.
“One game at a time,” Foster said.