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For three years, Fike High senior Reily Nelson toiled in the defensive backfield for the Lady Demons varsity soccer team, using her speed and skills to hold opponents at bay.
But after an 0-5 start in which Fike managed just four goals against a quintet of budding North Carolina High School Athletic Association playoff teams, including eventual 2-A champion First Flight, it was clear the Lady Demons were going to need some offensive spark to contend in the 3-A Big East Conference.
“Finally, when we got a chance to play some competition that we could hang with, we put her up top,” Fike head coach Toni Varacchi said of the decision to move Nelson, first to offensive midfield and then to forward.
The results speak for themselves as Nelson, who had scored “maybe 10 goals” her previous three seasons, erupted for 31 goals in leading Fike to a share of the Big East regular-season championship and the conference tournament title and back into the state playoffs.
“I enjoyed it. I really did. It was different,” Nelson said of the switch. “I’ve played defense my entire life so it was different.”
Her efforts resulted in the Western Carolina University signee being rewarded with the Big East Offensive Player of the Year award as well as inclusion on the North Carolina Soccer Coaches Association 3-A All-State Team. Nelson is the 20th Fike girls soccer player to earn all-state acclaim and the only player from the Times readership area to make the team this year. Nelson also earned her third straight All-Big East and All-Region 3 honors.
“It’s exciting! I didn’t expect it, really,” she said of being named all-state.
Nelson said that her doubts arose when former Fike teammate Emilee Futrell, who helped Carson-Newman reach the NCAA Division II championship match last fall as a freshman, was omitted from the NCSCA 3-A All-State Team last spring.
“If anyone should have gotten it last year, it was her,” Nelson said.
But Nelson proved to be just what the Lady Demons needed to shake their early doldrums. She scored three goals in Fike’s Big East opener, a 7-0 defeat of Southern Nash on March 19. Three days later, she drilled in four goals as Fike danced past Franklinton 8-1.
“I think her speed was her biggest asset,” Varacchi said. “Her ability to break away from players and have Claire (Dixon) and some other folks feeding her the ball up top. We had to find somebody to find the back of the net and she was able to do it on a regular basis.”
Indeed, Nelson was quick to praise Dixon, a two-time all-conference and all-region selection in the midfield.
“She’s what made it happen,” Nelson said. “She definitely started everything in the middle and you have to go through the middle to go up top.”
Nelson scored multiple goals in seven games, including a hat trick in the Lady Demons’ 3-2 win at Hunt in the first meeting of the archrivals. She also scored three goals in the first 15 minutes as Fike handed host Franklinton a 3-0 defeat.
“There were some games when I would be the only one to score (for Fike) and it made me feel selfish and I hated that because I wanted everyone else to score,” she said.
While Nelson, who was named Fike’s Female Athlete of the Year last week, was recruited as a defensive player for WCU, she admitted she really liked the freedom that playing offense allowed.
“I liked not having so much pressure to defend,” she said. “I felt like I was free and could do what I wanted and didn’t feel like it was my fault if they (other team) scored. I just felt comfortable up there, I guess.”