CARY — “Defense wins championships” is the gold standard saying in sports.
On Friday night, Wheatmore High School’s girls soccer team put a different spin on that tried-and-true axiom in the 2-A state championship game: The best defense can be a good offense.
The Warriors came out firing and pressuring hard on the offensive end and it paid off with a 4-1 victory over the Clinton Dark Horses to cap off a perfect 25-0 season and collect the school’s first state soccer title.
Summer Bowman scored two goals and took home the game’s MVP plaque while Ellie Garrison scored her 77th goal of the season to possibly break the state record for most goals in a season. (Possibly? More on that later.)
“My kids, I’m just so proud of them. I am so proud of them,” Head Coach Ricky Maness said afterwards. “We were just happy to be here. Winning it is icing on the cake. My family was here. It was just special.”
Wheatmore, the No. 2 seed in the West, definitely earned the title, defeating the top-ranked teams in the West and East and the No. 3 team in the West in a span of 9 days.
Wheatmore dominated opponents all season until then, outscoring their first 22 foes 184-10, many of those games shortened by a 9-0 mercy rule. Included in that number was a 20-2 edge over Wheatmore’s first three playoff opponents.
Then came some nail-biting.
The Warriors defeated No. 3 Community School of Davidson 3-2 on Thursday, May 26 with some good fortune. Wheatmore was nursing a 2-1 lead when CSD tied the game with about nine minutes left. With about three minutes to go, Maness said Kara Comer, who finished third in the state in assists, sent “a beautiful corner in and we were lucky it was an own side goal,” which decided the game.
Against No. 1 Wilkes Central on May 31, Wheatmore’s only road playoff game, the Warriors trailed 2-1 with 15 minutes to play when Wilkes Central senior Zoe Susi, the third-leading scorer in the state with 65, was fouled in the box and rewarded with a penalty kick. “She hits it, game over,” Maness said.
However, Susi pushed the kick wide of the goal, and 10 minutes later, Garrison tied the game at 2. It went to OT, where Garrison scored two more of her game-high four goals to lead Wheatmore to a 4-3 win and into the finals.
“We were really lucky there,” Maness said. “The nature of this game, you’ve got to have luck.”
Those two games gave the Warriors a chance to go all out on Friday, June 3, at Koka Booth Stadium in Cary’s WakeMed Soccer Park and they put on a show.
Clinton’s attacking triangle of Kenny Yang, Ava Williford and Ally Sutter showed early they were to be feared, so Wheatmore neutralized them with Rachael Pierce’s speed in the back, Haley Vazquez’s possession dominance on the right side and, most of all, by keeping the ball on Clinton’s end of the pitch as much as possible.
“That’s what we were trying to do up top,” Maness said. “We noticed in the beginning of the first half their wings were beginning to go forward so we had to watch that. I knew if we could pressure them high, we could keep them honest. They are a very good team and I was worried about their two forwards.”
Quick passes with depth, attacking with extra players, defenders sending deep balls down the field all played into that strategy.
“That was definitely our game plan,” Bowman said. “Our motto basically is to score first. Score first, it gets in their head.”
A rope by Garrison finally broke the 0-0 score with 16:57 left in the first half. She collected the ball out in front of the box and though several defenders were there, they backed away as she moved forward, so she took advantage of the space and buried a shot from the right-center front of the box into the deep left corner of the goal.
Just over six minutes later, with attention now on Garrison, Bowman won a 1-on-1 on the right side, then drove past the lone remaining defender, going to her right then back to her left where she entered the box unimpeded and hooked an angle-defying shot across the front of the goalie into the left side of the net.
“I took it straight at the defender,” Bowman said. “I want to get a defender like that, take them one way, take it another way and I just shot it high, right over the goalie.”
The 2-0 halftime lead with Wheatmore dominating play seemed like matters might be in control, but Maness wasn’t having it.
“Hate 2-0 at the half. I hate that number,” Maness said. “Anything can happen and it did.”
Indeed, barely two minutes into the second half, a cross by Clinton from the left side led to a Dark Horse goal. A defender’s header deflected the ball slightly. Goalie Victoria Lowe, having already reacted to where the cross was going, had to adjust on the deflection and did, corralling the ball in her hands. But the off-balance maneuver caused her to fall and as she hit the ground, the ball trickled out and Yang was there to punch it in.
Not even a minute later, the Dark Horses turned a corner into a near miss for a potential 2-2 tie.
“We made some changes at the half. I thought that might work. Well, it didn’t work,” Maness said. “So we fixed it. We went back to the way it was. Get some pressure up front.”
For the next 30 minutes, the game was an entertaining mix of strategy and free-for-all.
While the Dark Horses tried to meticulously build attacks from the back for their tall and dangerous scorers, the Warriors sent a frenzy of shots zinging in from all directions — up the middle, short range, long range, after long solo attacks, with services into the box. Shots rang off the goalpost, off the cross bar. A 35-yarder from Vazquez hit the right net from the outside. Garrison even tried a bicycle kick in front of the goal that the goalie snagged.
The game also turned rougher. Clinton earned three yellow cards and eventually a red for defender Sophia Jackson. The Dark Horses, already visibly tired and likely mentally drained on the back end from the onslaught, were then down to 10 players as well, and Wheatmore took advantage with two goals in a four-minute span.
On the first, with 5:24 to go, Garrison looped a cross from the right side to the feet of Bowman at the front of the box. Bowman deftly turned and flicked it in with her right foot, the ball glancing into goal off the bottom of the crossbar. With 1:15 left, Vazquez took a pass out from congested traffic in front of her to the right of the box, and with her area free and clear, smashed a 30-yard shot over the head of the goalie.
Clinton’s Yang was fouled in the box and awarded a penalty kick with just 30 seconds to go, but her shot went wide of the goal.
When it was over, Maness admitted to quite a few restless nights lately. But he was buoyed by his team’s confidence and one more piece of foretelling luck.
Before the game, one of the players found a quarter and gave it to Maness.
“I said that stands for 25. I said who’s the president on that? George Washington, the first president. I said we’re going to get to 25 (wins) and be the first and that’s what happened.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “That was amazing.”
The matchup might not be the last for the two teams. Both teams are young.
Clinton has just four seniors and returns nine sophomores and four juniors, including most of their key players.
Wheatmore also has just four seniors, though they are key ones: Lowe, Pearce, Comer and Kylie Biggs. But Garrison is one of three sophomores, Bowman one of five juniors and her sister Natalie one of four freshmen.
The heart of the offense will return, led by Garrison, who just completed one of the greatest seasons in North Carolina High School Athletics Assocation history.
According to the NCHSAA women’s soccer records, Sarah Winslow of Fike High School entered this season with the most goals scored in a season, when she scored 76 in 2006. Garrison’s 77 eclipsed that mark.
However, the NCHSAA relies on schools to report what their athletes do, and apparently not all schools do. According to a story by the Chatham News + Record, Isabel Pearce of Woods Charter in Chatham County scored 80 goals in 2017, and 226 in her career, neither of which is listed on the NCHSAA site. The career record holder is listed as Carolyn Lindsay of South View with 217 (2000-2003).
Garrison — who plays club ball as a center-forward for NC Fusion in Greensboro — has heard about Pearce, too, but she shrugged off what that does or doesn’t mean for her feat. That’s for others to figure out. She couldn’t be happier with the way this year played out, laying all the credit at the feet of her Warriors team.
“It’s my teammates supporting me through everything, it’s them being there, cheering me on through everything,” she said. “Them knowing I’m almost there and then cheering me on when I got that (77th) goal. They’ve just supported me the whole way. It’s been a great team.”