By Ruben Lowman
“We play for each other!”
That was the rallying cry during the halftime huddle for the North Myrtle Beach Chiefs boys varsity soccer team the Thursday before last in Little River, when they held a slim lead over one of the top teams in the state with 40 minutes still left to go.
What happened next was the culmination of several lifetimes full of moments of happiness, hard work, determination, effort and teamwork, as NMB dominated the Knights of West Florence and thrashed them 5-2.
11 lifetimes to be exact.
That’s how many seniors are on this Chiefs team this season, with all of them receiving heavy minutes and comprising the core of the team. The group are a band of brothers, selfless, all for one and one for all, with heart and soul the only barometers they measure themselves by.
“Playing for one another has always been our motto because we are brothers on the field,” said attacking midfielder and captain Jesse Foster. “No matter what happens in the game, you leave your heart on the field for the guys playing next to you, because they deserve it.”
For the families of Foster, Jackson Adler, Seth Chapman, Albert Arguijo, Gavin Cartwright, Jay Langeneck, Ty Wulder, Luca Testa, Braydon Baeli, Kyle Nicholl and Ben Lewis, many of whom make it to every North Myrtle Beach game home and away, the journey leading to this moment has been special.
Most of the Chiefs seniors have grown up together on and off the field, as they have known each other since they first started forming memories in grade school. Beginning in local recreation leagues, the boys have formed a close bond and connection, one that was created out on the grass of Michael Nash Field and the NMB Park and Sports Complex.
“I have known some of the guys since pre-school and we have all taken different paths playing soccer through our recreation and travel teams, so it has been great to be able to come together on the same team and play for the NMB Chiefs,” attacking midfielder Nicholl said.
“The connection the team has with one another was formed when we were just kids playing rec soccer together,” Foster explained.
The Chiefs (10-4, 8-2 Region VI-4A) will have to lean on that close connection and team unity as they finish region play and head into the state 4A playoffs. They have already been hit with a spell of adversity, and now it has been confirmed that one of their captains and leaders, central defender Langeneck, will be out for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL in his knee.
A devastating blow for the Chiefs, to be sure, but one they will take in stride, as they have all season. Central defender Chapman said that the team is extremely disappointed for Langeneck but it gives them extra motivation to succeed for him.
“Now we have more motivation and another reason to win,” Chapman said.
Chapman and forward Testa were two who joined the program when they moved here with their families four years ago, and they were welcomed with open arms and brought into the brotherhood very quickly. Testa said the players’ tight bond and diehard mentality helps drive the team forward, especially in key moments.
“I think the close bond we have makes us push each other to the limit, as we know what each can handle both emotionally and physically,” Testa said. “We all have one common goal – to put blood, sweat and tears for the team. We are most importantly not just friends outside of school and soccer, but more like brothers.”
Nicholl said the players unique brotherly connection means they work together as a true team.
“Our chemistry is strong like brothers so we come together as one unit versus trying to be individual players,” Nicholl said. “We win as a team or lose as a team.”
The closeness the Chiefs have is like a family, full back Adler said, which pays dividends in the heat of battle.
“The close bond really helps because we don’t argue much and we are very tight as family,” said Adler.
Led by head coach Brian Smith, the Chiefs look to use their teamwork and innate connection to play attacking soccer while dominating the opposition and possession. Striker Cartwright and defensive midfielder Arguijo said that their chemistry enables them to succeed more because of the faith they have in each other.
“We already believe in one another,” Cartwright said.
Smith is very careful with his choice of tactics from game to game, making sure to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents’ and ensure his players are properly prepared for what they will be facing out on the field come gameday.
With an emotional rematch on the cards this Tuesday night against Myrtle Beach, Smith has let his players know the threat they face. Star striker Matti Ott, who scored four of the Seahawks five goals in Little River, is the big target for Smith and NMB this week.
Ott’s speed and finishing ability are top-tier, and the Seahawks will look to play countless balls over the top and try and get Ott in behind the Chiefs backline and score goals, as they did in their 5-2 win in late March. NMB’s backline and goalkeeper Nolan Long are on high alert for Ott, who has 19 goals on the season.
“We definitely have to play with high intensity the whole game,” Chapman said. “I know personally man-marking Mathi (Ott) will be difficult but I’ve talked with coach and we’ve worked on positioning and not letting him turn, since their offense flows through him.”
But Smith also sets the Chiefs out to play attacking soccer as a team, pressing high, controlling possession and looking to carve up the opposition with their passing and movement.
“We attack as a team, we defend as a team,” said Smith.
He has the Chiefs playing exceptional soccer, dominating during a four-game winning streak and has made them a resilient and dynamic team that are capable of playing in a number of different styles during a game.
They can hit you with speed on the break in wingers Testa and Lewis, they can work through the center with patient build-up play with Foster and Nicholl, play through Cartwright up top, they can even go direct and throw junior forward Kevin Lemus up front and try and get the ball to the big man in the middle.
Foster and Nicholl set the tempo, pulling the strings in central areas, with fellow midfielder Arguijo stationed just behind them. Foster and Nicholl like to pick up the ball from deep, where they can use their acceleration and skills to go by defenders at top speed. Once they get into opposition territory, they can use their touch and creativity to make things happen and find open teammates with their vision and passing.
Arguijo is the pit-bull of the midfield, the heat-seeking missile of a destroyer that uses his robust physicality to dominate the central areas. His mission is to break up play, get the ball and then spread it around to his Chiefs teammates in open space. With Arguijo, it’s typically mission accomplished.
“We definitely feel confident going into the match coming right off of a 5-2 win against the top team in our region,” Arguijo said.
The Chiefs use their intricate triangles and link-up play to carve out chances, working the ball through their midfield of Foster, Nicholl and Arguijo before playing it into the wide channels for their attackers to use their speed and advance the ball into opposition territory.
Testa, Lewis and Cartwright are silky workhorses up front, running all game and giving their teammates options to stretch the play vertically. When they get the ball, they also possess the trickery and quick feet to go by their defender and make things happen.
“Knowing they work for every 50/50 ball and put their bodies on the line motivates other guys to do it as well,” said Chapman.
The Chiefs backline, with the loss of Langeneck, now sees full backs Adler and Baeli line up on the flanks, with Chapman and sophomore Shane Monahan stationed in central defense. They have been energetic, tough and resilient during their winning streak, even in the absence of Langeneck.
Chiefs and Seahawks matchups are always heated and emotional, with region titles and playoff positions on the line. The battle for second place in the region, as well as a possible second seed and first-round bye in the playoffs in May, is at stake this week.
With one dragon slayed in the top-ranked Knights, the Chiefs now move on to the daunting task of defeating the Seahawks (9-6, 6-3 Region VI-4A), who come into this week riding a 22-game undefeated streak against NMB dating back to 2010.
“During my four years as a varsity player at NMB playing against Myrtle Beach, I have never been able to walk off the field with a victory,” said Nicholl. “The Seahawks have been the champions of our division for years and should be respected for that, but it would be incredible should the Chiefs finish this season with a win over Myrtle Beach.”
After their comprehensive 5-2 victory over nationally-ranked West Florence before spring break, the Chiefs showed their ability when they move the ball, Adler said, and they know what they must do to succeed against the Seahawks.
“Going into this Myrtle Beach game it’s exciting, scary and sad all at the same time,” Adler said. “We want to make history for this team and show what we know we can do.”
The Chiefs seniors are dead set on seeing the Seahawks dominance over them and the rest of the region come to an end on Tuesday night. The Chiefs said they were fired up and ready to make a statement.
“I feel ecstatic. I’m excited to show what we can do and I know everyone else is ready and fired up for Tuesday’s game,” said Cartwright.
“The Myrtle Beach rematch is a very exciting game, and one that personally I will remember no matter the result,” Foster said. “I know every one of us know that we have what it takes to make a statement on Tuesday night, just as we did against West Florence.”