By Ruben Lowman
After an impressive opening home victory against Beaufort in Little River, the North Myrtle Beach Chiefs fell in the boys soccer 4A playoffs to a deep and talented North Augusta squad that is one of the top programs in the state.
First things first – the big win in Little River last Monday night against the Eagles that cemented the Chiefs first home playoff victory in quite some time, not seen since the days the school was still in the 3A class.
“I actually didn’t know that was the first home playoff win in a while. That’s pretty cool,” said NMB head coach Brian Smith. “Our supporters have been amazing this year. They have given us so much energy when games get tough. I can’t thank them enough for how they helped carry us throughout the season.”
Beaufort had been one of the hottest teams in 4A before traveling to Little River and taking on the Chiefs, winning seven of their final eight matches, including victories over May River and James Island, who knocked NMB out of the playoffs on their way to the state championship last season.
Entering the Monday, May 2 matchup with the Chiefs (12-8, 9-3 VI-4A), the Eagles were riding high behind the influential play of forwards Colton Phares and Anderson Jones, and looked to use their physicality and speed on the break to try and cause problems for the NMB defense.
The early stages of the match played out as expected, with the Chiefs dominating the ball and chances and pressing from the front when out of possession. The Eagles looked to play more direct, attempting balls over the top and behind the backline.
After about 15 minutes, the pressure began to overflow and NMB capitalized to jump out to a quick 1-0 lead.
After good build-up play, the Chiefs broke the game open with attacking midfielder Jesse Foster finding forward Luca Testa with a throughball that found him in acres of space and one-on-one with the Eagles keeper. Testa drove around him using his deft footwork and slotted the ball into the back of the net for his team-leading twelfth goal on the season.
The Chiefs supporters were on their feet, literally jumping for joy as the ball skidded across the grass field on Highway 90.
“The atmosphere at the game against Beaufort was incredible, I’m not sure if I’ve felt something like that before,” Testa said. “To score in such a big match was a dream come true, as it personally felt amazing. We knew that our program hasn’t had a home win in a while, yet alone even being able to have a home playoff game, so we knew we needed to show our fans who are always there what we can do.”
Dominating and riding the waves of confidence that came after the first goal, the Chiefs were shutting down any looks Beaufort might have briefly gotten at goal, as the only chances the Eagles had were just launching the ball from midfield and hoping it found the net. Phares was being shuttled around the field in order to plug the gaps being exposed by the patient play of the Chiefs, with defensive midfielder Albert Arguijo pulling the strings in front of the defense.
With the NMB backline thoroughly controlling Beaufort’s attack, the Chiefs midfield was liberated to lay forward and wreak havoc on the Eagles defenders. The Chiefs were destroying the Eagles by working the ball down the left side – patiently moving the ball around the backline and midfield and getting it out wide to attacking midfielder Kyle Nicholl, who continuously danced by his defender and sent in dangerous balls into the box for his fellow Chiefs attackers.
After a threatening cross from Nicholl narrowly evaded midfielder Ben Lewis making a late run into the box, the resulting corner saw striker Gavin Cartwright smash in a goal on the volley after 35 minutes. Nicholl’s in-swinging corner flew right over the Eagles defenders and landed on Cartwright’s right boot, which he expertly tucked away to double the Chiefs lead.
“The win against Beaufort was a great game and we were glad to show the fans that we are a good team and have a lot of heart, something the 11 seniors have been showing people for years,” NMB sophomore goalkeeper Nolan Long said.
With the emotions still high after the Chiefs doubled their advantage, a long shot from Phares was parried away by Long, but Eagles midfielder Beck Schwerin poked home the loose ball to bring the score to 2-1.
As the second half began and the clock ticked down, the frustrations the Eagles felt would begin to spill over and affect the game, causing several stoppages by the referee. With the Chiefs completely controlling the ball and preventing Beaufort from finding any open space on the field, the game grew testy. Nicholl said that is to be expected in a big playoff game, and NMB knew how to respond.
“Any win at home is a good win, but the playoffs bring an intensity that ramps up the emotions. We knew it was win or the season was over,” Nicholl said. “We were fortunate to control most of the game until Beaufort started to realize they were going to be eliminated, and then the game took an unfortunate bad turn. It was key for us to keep focused and not let the other team drag us down into yellow or red card situations. The win felt great but we had only two days to recover and get focused on North Augusta.”
It was special to get a playoff win in front of the supporters, Smith said, and he told all the players to go straight to salute the fans when the final whistle blew. From the highs of victory come the lows of defeat, however, and a tough away matchup with North Augusta just two nights later awaited the Chiefs.
Coming into the game Wednesday, the Yellow Jackets were on a 15-game winning streak, and ranked as the number three 4A team in the state and the top team in the lower state. Last season, North Augusta came to Myrtle Beach and convincingly beat an undefeated Seahawks team 3-1. In short, they’re very good. Long said the Chiefs knew they would have to give it their all.
“We left it all on the field,” Long said. “It was definitely a nervous game and it was a long bus ride to get there. We made sure to give it our all.”
The Chiefs were going to have to play a perfect game to have a chance with the Yellow Jackets, and for the first 30 minutes of the game they did close to that. NMB’s best chances came in the opening half an hour, when they went toe to toe with the Yellow Jackets.
“We knew going in that we would have to play a clean game with no mistakes and high intensity. We played well the first 10-15 minutes and had more chances, but their quickness and playmaking eventually found the back of the net,” Nicholl said.
Both teams play a patient, possession-based game and this match was no different. The opening stages saw both teams pass it around the back and look to apply pressure on their opposition when on the ball. The Yellow Jackets have good senior leadership, along with a core group of younger and talented players, a lot like North Myrtle Beach.
The first opportunity of the game fell to the Chiefs, with captain Foster getting a good look on the volley that narrowly flew over the post and gave the North Augusta crowd an early scare. Nicholl’s cross into the box found Foster in a pocket of space that almost gave the Chiefs the key early goal they would need in such an intense away matchup.
Instead, shortly after the close miss the senior Yellow Jacket duo of Ben Holton and Gerson Escalante, who have paced the team all season, combined once more to put North Augusta in the driver’s seat. Holton pulled the ball back for Escalante to rifle home, giving them a 1-0 lead.
A switch clicked for the Chiefs after that and they went to work.
Testa displayed dynamite footwork to try and level the scores again but the Yellow Jackets defender cut the ball out right as he went to shoot. Testa followed that by latching onto an excellent throughball from Foster, taking his chance with a driven effort from outside the box that was whiskers wide.
Then, the best chance of the game for NMB. Nicholl swung in an excellent driven cross that almost reached Testa but was just slightly out of his reach. Midfielder Charlie Pfahler picked up the ball on the right wing and tried to get the ball back into the box but was unsuccessful and, once again, the North Augusta fans were relieved.
Unfortunately, yet again a narrow miss for the Chiefs was quickly turned into a goal for the Yellow Jackets, as midfielder Kevin Avila picked up the ball on the right and cut it back to his teammate Henry Martinez who swept it past Long and into the corner with no chance for the keeper. The score shifted to 2-0 Yellow Jackets and the Chiefs began to press more in search of a goal.
“Once we were down two goals, we knew we had to press which exposed us even more. The Chiefs played tough the second half and went down fighting, but North Augusta deserves the credit for a good game plan and I wish them good luck for the rest of the playoffs,” Nicholl said.
Holton took advantage of a slip-up by the NMB backline and got the ball in opposition territory, where he twisted and turned his marker before passing the ball right into the corner. Another mistake in the middle turned the ball over to the Yellow Jackets after the goal, and a deflected shot found its way to the boot of Escalante once again with a bit of space. For the second time, he fired the ball into the goal, giving North Augusta a dominant 4-0 lead right as the first half whistle blew.
The Chiefs knew that they were the underdogs against a very professional and top quality opponent, Testa said, with a majority of NMB’s players coming up against them in their fall travel soccer season. He said the Chiefs did everything they could to win, but moments in the game just didn’t go their way.
“I believe we lacked the composure going into such a big match and that was the eventual downfall,” Testa said. “Even so, I am incredibly proud of our team as we have had so many changes happen throughout our season. I also think we lost to the team that will be the eventual winners once again in the playoffs, as that was a very strong North Augusta team.”
NMB still came out trying to search for a way back in the second half, with full back Jackson Adler spotting the keeper off his line and trying his luck with an effort from distance. But the Yellow Jackets keeper Tyler Hughes was quick to get back and sure-handed on the save.
Avila then took advantage of a bouncing ball in behind the backline and in front of the keeper, and he collected the ball and tucked it away for an insurmountable 5-0 advantage.
“North Augusta was class from top to bottom,” Smith said. “They are an excellent team, and well disciplined. We gave them everything we had, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough.”
With the season over for the Chiefs players, it is a tough pill to swallow for a team that began the season with championship aspirations. Losing captain and rock at the heart of defense, Jay Langeneck, to a torn ACL in the middle of the season brought a sobering reminder for how tenuous such hopes can be, however.
“I have always been a believer that it’s the experience that matters more than the result,” Testa said.
“Prior to the Beaufort game I told the boys that no matter how this run ends to be prepared that it will end with tears,” Smith said. “I am so grateful I’ve gotten an opportunity to work with this group of seniors. They have been excellent representatives for North Myrtle Beach High School. I am truly sad to see them go. I’m going to miss them.”
An emotional end to a rollercoaster of a season, one that will surely live long in the hearts and minds of the players, coaches and supporters of the Chiefs boys soccer team.