Jackets in the driver's seat

·5 min read

Oct. 13—'Monday Night Fútbol' at the Paul Gay Stadium turned into a victory that Lee County's soccer team will not soon forget.

However, head coach Brad Wicker was quick to say that the stadium announcer's near-declaration of a Sandhills Athletic Conference championship was a little premature.

"We still have to win two more," said Wicker, just seconds after admonishing his players that posing in front of the scoreboard should wait. "We have three games to go. I don't want to celebrate too early."

Lee County had been waiting for Monday for a while now. It had been clear for a long time that either the Yellow Jackets or Pinecrest would rule the roost in the first year of the new league. An outstanding second half enabled Lee to take the driver's seat. After a scoreless first half, junior Logan Jordan found the back of the net three times after intermission, and the Yellow Jackets swarmed to a 3-1 victory.

The win, Lee's sixth in a row, put the Jackets all alone atop the league standings at 8-0-1, 12-3-1 overall. Pinecrest (12-2-1, 7-1-1) dropped a game behind in the standings. Every other team in the league has at least four conference losses. The Jackets still need two wins to nail down the program's first conference title since 2017, but two of Lee's last three regular-season games are with league bottom-feeders Scotland (at home on Monday) and Richmond (home on Oct. 23), sandwiched around a home date with Southern Lee on Oct. 20.

The Yellow Jackets are unbeaten in their last 10 matches. The only blemish on the team's record since August was a 1-1 draw at Pinecrest on Sept. 15, following up a come-from-behind win over third-place Hoke. Wicker said his team has been steadily coming together and elevating its play all season long, eager to redeem last year's disappointing campaign, which was marred by COVID-19 and other non-soccer issues.

"We've been getting better each and every game," said Wicker. "Everyone looks at our schedule last year, and we were 2-6. But I knew I had some good guys coming back, and I just needed to get them to come out and practice and we could mesh together."

Monday night was all about soccer. Three minutes in, the Jackets mounted their first threat, getting back-to-back corner kicks. The second yielded a header on frame by Thomas Perry, but the Patriot keeper made the save. In the sixth minute, Pinecrest's Matthew Mueller put a shot on goal, but Lee keeper Ivan Lopez took care of business as well.

The teams surged back and forth during the first 40 minutes, but both teams stood strong on defense. The standout of the half was Lee defender Owen Edwards. In the ninth minute, he cleared a rebound off Lopez' hands before a Patriot could get to it, but that was nothing compared to what occurred in minute 18.

A Pinecrest attacker got down the middle of the field and Lopez stepped out to contest it, but the Patriots got the shot off and Lopez overran the play, leaving the ball rolling slowly toward the left post. Edwards was the only player with a chance to get there—and he raced furiously toward that post and slid into the ball, deflecting it out of bounds just inches from entering the net. The Jackets cleared the subsequent corner kick and the score remained 0-0.

Lee nearly scored off a free kick in minute 28, and then Pinecrest dominated the last 11 minutes of the half, even scoring once but having it waved off for offsides, but the Jackets held on to preserve the deadlock.

Five minutes into the second half, the Patriots' Gerald Ofusu missed a wide-open net from 15 yards. Lee took the ensuing goal kick and launched a counterattack that finally drew first blood less than two minutes later. Jordan found an opening in traffic about 15 yards out and blasted a shot past the keeper.

Pinecrest rushed back the other way and nearly scored less than a half-minute later, but Lee quickly regained control. Christian Chicas and then Jordan nearly scored in the 53rd and 55th minutes, respectively, and then Jordan did score in the 57th, after Lee was awarded a free kick near the home sidelines from 40 yards out. Jordan ran it down about 13 yards from the goal and headed into the net.

Pinecrest finally scored in the 66th minute of play, after controlling the ball for more than four minutes. But as soon as they did, the Jackets swarmed back down the field in the other direction. Just 10 seconds after the score, the Patriots' Andrew Bonville upended Lee's Irvin Gutierrez in the goal box. Jordan took the penalty kick and scored for the hat trick and a 3-1 lead.

The Jackets more than held their own down the stretch and claimed the win.

Lee had lost 6-2 to Pinecrest back on Aug. 18, in the Battle for the Bell Tournament in Fayetteville. The Jackets were missing two starters that day, but Wicker said the Patriots, who have been ranked in MaxPreps' 4A East top 10 most of the season, were just a better team at that time.

Not anymore.

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