Clinton welcomed longtime nemesis, East Duplin, to the Dark Horse Soccer Complex on Saturday evening for a second round 2A playoff match. The two teams met earlier in the regular season on September 8 when the Dark Horses traveled to Beaulaville and came away with a 6-1 thumping of the Panthers. The Panthers, coming out of the highly competitive East Central Conference were looking to avenge the earlier loss and put an end to Clinton’s season. The teams were knotted in a scoreless tie for more than half the match before the Horses broke the tie early in the second frame to come away with a 2-0 win, earning a spot in the third round of the playoffs.
The two teams waged a back and fourth defensive battle through the first half with both unable to put a ball in the nets. Clinton had two opportunities but came up empty handed as the East Duplin goal keeper and his defensive mates were determined not to allow a Dark Horse Score. While the Panthers possessed the ball a big portion of the first half, they were only able to get one shot on goal and Clinton’s Gray Sutter snuffed out that attempt to preserve the shutout.
The Dark Horses made some halftime adjustments and came out of the break putting much more pressure on the Panther’s defense. Early in the second half, Clinton’s Peter Darden tracked down a long pass deep in the Panther’s end of the field and lobbed a pass in the direction of a cutting Luke Byrd. Byrd took the Darden pass, dribbled toward the goal and fired a left-footed dart toward the back post of the Panther goal. The shot lofted over the East Duplin goal keeper and curled into the back corner of the net to give the Dark Horses a 1-0 lead at the 46:01 mark of the match.
Clinton added an insurance goal in the seventy-first minute of the match when Spell Carr was fouled as he was breaking away on the right sideline. Carr sent the resulting free kick into the box, where Turner Wells flicked his head, redirecting the ball into the East Duplin goal for Dark Horses second goal.
The match was stopped just less than a minute later, at the 72:08 mark when lightning flashed across the sky. The crowd was sent to their cars and the teams retreated to the locker rooms for a 45-minute weather delay. During the delay the field was inundated by rain, turning the already wet track into near rice paddy conditions. After the rains stopped and no lighting was detected for at least 30 minutes the teams were allowed to return to the field to complete the final eight minutes of the match.
When the game resumed Clinton assumed a very defensive strategy, only attacking the Panther goal with three or four players and leaving the remainder of the team to defend the Horses’ goal. The Panthers frantically sloshed through the mud and water, attempting to get traction and move the ball, but the wet conditions slowed the progress to a crawl as the final eight minutes of the game expired.
After the game, Clinton head coach Brad Spell talked about the second round win, saying, “We knew coming into tonight that they were going to be a possession team. They moved the ball well on us and probably out possessed us 60/40. But we did what we had to do, once again we capitalized on a set piece, and the first goal by Luke Byrd was just phenomenal. Peter Darden sent him a perfect pass and he just hit the top right corner. This is a good win, anytime you beat an East Central opponent, especially East Duplin because they have had our number in playoff games in the past, it feels really good.”
Spell continued his comments, adding “I just told the guys, I don’t want us to be satisfied. I want us to keep running the tables, the door is open for us and we need to take advantage of the opportunity that is before us. We need to be smart off the field, we need to take care of business in the classroom and we need to be behind one another because we do have the opportunity sitting in front of us.”
East Duplin’s coach Joey Jones spoke highly of the Dark Horses after the game saying, “we knew we were coming to play a good team tonight, but we were hoping to make up for the way we played when we met them earlier this year. I thought we played good tonight, we just couldn’t put the ball in the back of the nets. We moved the ball well at the midfield but offensively we struggled a little bit. I am proud of our team, they came in here and competed tonight.”
The Panthers end the season with a 14-9 record overall and a 6-4 mark in the East Central Conference. Clinton improves their record to 24-1-1 overall and moves on to host the third round of the NCHSAA 2A playoffs on Wednesday night. The Dark Horses will face the winner of the Eastern Randolph vs Currituck match that is scheduled to be played on Monday night