SMITHFIELD — A late goal by Southern Nash prompted an emotional ending to the season for the Smithfield-Selma boys soccer team in the second round of the 3A state playoffs.
The Firebirds secured the 2-1 victory when Moises Gonzalez found an opening and then the net with 10 minutes to play. Searching for an equalizer, the No. 5 seed Spartans (14-5-3) couldn’t break through the back line of No. 12 Southern Nash (18-5) in the final minutes, which was the theme of the upset.
Smithfield-Selma coach Renato Freitas, who recently took a teaching job in Florida and flew back for Saturday’s playoff game, said the game meant more than one win or loss. This year’s Spartans seniors had grown from a group that went 0-14 in the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference three years ago to a group that earned its first boys soccer playoff win since 2005.
“When I came, those guys were sophomores and juniors and they all got (defeated) really bad as a young team,” Freitas said of his upperclassmen. “They had a feeling this year it was their moment. Then, when something bad happens, it’s like, ‘Oh no.’
“And we dominated. We were all over (Southern Nash), and to not (be) able to score – that’s what hurt, too.”
The win was bittersweet for Firebirds coach Kurt Bienias, who coached the Barton College women’s soccer team last year with Freitas. He praised his team’s showing in the form of a compliment to the Spartans.
“(The Firebirds) understand how good they can be, and they showed they can be pretty dang good against a great team,” Bienias said.
Smithfield-Selma owned the possession game in the first 40 minutes, but the Firebirds defense denied the steady play-building efforts of Harrison Howell and Joseph Williams along the right end. The Spartans managed five shots to Southern Nash’s two in a scoreless first half.
“I was telling my boys to play our game, but Southern Nash had put everyone in the back there, playing with a sweeper in the back,” Freitas said.
Three of the game’s four yellow cards were issued in a second half in which the Firebirds opened scoring with 24 minutes to play. Cody Vasquez followed up on a Gonzalez shot deflected by Spartans keeper Felipe Silva Carranza for the 1-0 lead.
Smithfield-Selma tied the game one minute later, when Daniel Antonio Avila netted a free kick that resulted from the one card issued against Southern Nash in the game.
Despite being doubled on the scoreboard, SSS doubled the Firebirds in shots on goal with eight.
“It was a hard loss because we knew they could go further,” Freitas said. “Sometimes it’s kind of the moment – luck or fate, or whatever it is. That’s part of the game and we have to learn how to deal with that.”
Freitas, who planned to drive back to Florida the next day, said he had “never been so blessed to be part of a group” like the SSS crew.
“I’m proud of these guys,” he said. “They’ve done so much for this school. The seniors have been here for every summer workout – we’d had practices at 6 in the morning in the rain.
“They’d be ready to do it, because they knew they were a good team that could go further once they matured.”
Southern Nash advanced to face Jacksonville in the third playoff round.
Moody: 919-829-4806; Twitter: @easternwakenews