ASHEBORO — Asheboro High School was oh so close Monday night to reaching the state finals in soccer for the first time in school history.
In fact, for 89 minutes of the 90-minute soccer game, the Blue Comets held visiting Hickory scoreless at Lee J. Stone Stadium in front of a soccer crowd the size of which may have never been seen in these parts.
That’s no easy feat. Hickory won this same Western Regional last year before losing 1-0 in the state 3-A championship game to Western Alamance.
Ah, but that other minute. That one minute. That was the stuff of nightmares.
Asheboro had moved ahead 1-0 about 30 minutes into the half after spending the opening half-hour countering Hickory’s rapid-fire runs down the sidelines with long bouts of side-switching, defense-probing possession.
Eventually, they found a hole when freshman Carlos Castaneda Gonzalez rolled a clean ball toward the middle of the field to an oncoming Daniel Gutierrez Resendez.
The problem was he was about 35-40 yards out, but that didn’t didn’t turn out to be a problem at all as the sophomore ripped a laser into the right side of the net.
Just a few days earlier, Gutierrez Resendez had accomplished that same feat in the quarterfinal game, his long shot the only score in a 1-0 win over East Lincoln. Could he have just produced the same outcome, given Asheboro had recorded 8 shutouts in its last 10 games?
The answer to that question came in the waning minutes just before halftime when David Escobedo fed a cross from the right corner across the face of the goal. It appeared to ping-pong off players before glancing off an Asheboro defender and past the goalkeeper.
The own goal knotted the game at 1-1.
On the ensuing kickoff, Asheboro quickly worked into range on the offensive end, eager to get that goal back before the half. But Hickory’s Josue Leal gained control of the ball instead, found some space off to his right and launched a long, high-arching ball over the top of Asheboro’s three-man back line.
Orlando Almanza, one of Hickory’s several tall attackers with blazing speed, timed his run perfectly on the counterattack and made it count in the ensuing one-on-one matchup with the keeper.
The mostly smaller Blue Comets spent the second half trying to find their way through the tall weeds that was Hickory’s defense, but never could locate that one clean look. There was one shot from the front that flew past just feet over the left corner of the goal. A crosser from the left into the box showed promise, but no.
Hickory, with the lead, had the luxury of being able to pack in the defense while Asheboro could only attack with so many players, having to make sure another forward didn’t get loose on the Red Tornadoes’ constant deep launches. The Blue Comets had to keep the game close on one end while trying to tie it on the other.
In the end, the difference came down to that one minute. An own goal and a loose cannon. But then, that can be soccer.
For AHS Coach Nick Arroyo, the game marked another step in the right direction for the program, not only in how far the team went — the Western Regional runner-up plaque presented to the 23-2-2 team afterwards was the school’s first such honor — but how they reacted to and handled the adversity of a heart-breaking loss.
Last year, Arroyo directed Asheboro to a 14-1-3 regular season record and a 4th seed in the playoffs. However, the Blue Comets lost 2-1 at home in the opening game to 29th ranked North Lincoln, which came in with a 10-13 record. And the result was ugly.
“Honestly, tonight, being the fact that they lost the game, you could see the seniors and see the players not turn on each other,” Arroyo said. “Last year in the first round of the playoffs when we lost, you could see when the other team scored a goal, every one of the old upperclassmen turned against themselves and against their teammates. The whole game today, it was nothing but positivity throughout the entire game. No one said a negative word to anyone.
“It sucks to end this way, but I feel like we didn’t lost to a bad team. At least we lost to a team that fought their way into it.
“It just wasn’t our day.”
The supportive crowd was also a step in the right direction. For nearly the entire first half, a line from the box office entrance stretched to Park Street, constantly refilling as volunteers feverishly worked to get $8-paying visitors inside. A second line was opened at a second window and it was nearly as long.
It was a football sized crowd for a futbol game.
Most importantly, at the end, there were no protestations about Hickory’s victory or Asheboro’s failure to advance, but growing applause left the crowd and rushed over the players.
“That’s the most support I’ve seen for a soccer program in my history here and I’ve been here for a long time, not just coaching, but I went to school here and played here,” Arroyo said. “The support we received from this community was crazy.”
The team will lose quite a few players, including leading scorer Cristian Ortiz Benitez (his 36 goals ranked top 10 in the state), Cristian Cruz (15 goals and 18 assists) and powerful midfielder Brandon Santos, among others.
“We lose eight players, seven starters,” Arroyo said, “but last year we lost nine starters and stepped right back into it. So all we have to do is work hard and we’ll be right back here again.”
A stadium full of fans can’t wait.