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For 40 minutes Tuesday night, the specter of an upset loomed over the opening of a 2018 Rotary Cup that will not declare a champion.
Wilson Christian pulled in a late first-half equalizer to level Fike High at 1-all in the opening match of the event. But within the span of six minutes, the Golden Demons had a share of needed breathing room.
Junior Kevin Mendoza finished with a hat trick, and the Demons ended play with four unanswered goals to pull away for a 7-2 victory on Field No. 2 — one of the two turf surfaces — at Gillette Soccer Complex in the season opener for both teams. With only five teams participating due to Community Christian School not fielding a boys soccer team, Fike will not be required to defend the Cup in this edition.
“We had to shake it off,” Fike head coach Chris Mizelle surmised. “This was our first time seeing 11 players on the other side of the field, and I didn’t expect the first 40 (minutes) to be great. And it certainly wasn’t. But I thought we bounced back and looked really good in the second half.”
In the seventh minute, the North Carolina Christian School Association 2-A East Region Chargers had a defensive breakdown that led to Fike’s opening goal. Senior Myles Cyrus was the beneficiary, slipping behind an overextended Wilson Christian defense and finishing inside the box for the early lead.
But from there, Fike of the 3-A Big East Conference struggled to generate quality attempts on frame. The Demons were whistled for eight offsides infractions — four in each half — and one of them in the first half wiped away a would-be goal in the 22nd following an official’s conference.
As Wilson Christian struggled physically to get to the end of the half defending the goal closest to the sun, Fike became sloppy. A giveaway deep in Fike’s defensive third landed at the feet of senior Zach Hunter, who cranked an uncontested shot at Demons senior keeper Tanner Sullivan. However, Sullivan, who didn’t make a save in the second half, was there for one of his four stops.
Hunter’s push did help pull the Chargers onto even terms before halftime. While he couldn’t finish, sophomore Ethan Mitchell did, cranking the ball past a helpless Sullivan in the 39th to tie it at 1.
At the coin toss, the Chargers had the option of which end of the field to defend. They thought the Demons would be defending into the same intense sun in the second half, an outcome that did not materialize.
“We made the wrong calculation with that,” Wilson Christian head coach Don Samson said. “We figured it would be a little more in our favor the second half, and we were wrong. So that’s on us. But I am proud of at least a solid 60 that we gave tonight.”
The Demons came out in the second half and quickly put distance between themselves and Wilson Christian. Senior Jaylen Guillen played the ball to Cyrus, who guided it in despite a small deflection from junior keeper Harrison Parker. Sophomore Gavin Wheeler made it 3-1 after he made an end-line run and buried it top shelf past Parker.
Despite the seven tallies, Parker had nine saves to keep Wilson Christian in it during the first half.
Hunter pulled one back for the Chargers in the 54th, cranking a shot from just inside the 18. That briefly trimmed Fike’s lead to one, but Mendoza quickly countered on the other end for the start of four straight Demon tallies to close.
“When they scored two on us and I put another one in, we felt like we were coming back,” Hunter said of the start to the second half. “But they put another one and another one in, we said ‘oh crap, we’re done. We’ve got to keep up the intensity for the whole game. We played 60 minutes, but we’ve got to play all 80.”
In the 73rd, sophomore Colby Smith and Wheeler collaborated with Mendoza to put Fike up 5-2. With under five minutes to go, junior Jalen Pearce headed in a pass from senior Israel Villalobos, and Mendoza finished off his hat trick by burying a free kick from straight away in the 77th.
Fike’s defense, headed by freshman O.C. Bolt, junior Mason Lee and senior Clayton Snyder, held up enough against Wilson Christian counterattacks.
“We did pretty good,” Mendoza said. “Better than the first half. We were a little tired because of the heat, but mainly the heat.”
Fike will not play in Thursday’s Rotary Cup session and finishes Saturday night against Greenfield. Wilson Christian takes on the challenge of Hunt on Thursday.
“The possession was much better,” Mizelle said of the second half. “It opened up the field quite a bit for us. I think five of our seven goals really came from plays where we were able to do things tight inside and swing it out wide, and create from there. I was very pleased with how we adjusted in the second half, and pretty much throughout that last 40 minutes.