Myers Park’s girls soccer team, finally, is a North Carolina state champion.
The Mustangs, a perennial state power, beat Pinecrest, 2-0, in Greensboro to capture the title. Myers Park coach Bucky McCarley was back in the finals for the second time in about six weeks.
McCarley’s boys soccer team reached the 4A boys final in late March before losing to Cardinal Gibbons 3-0.
On Friday, the Myers Park girls (18-0-1) and Pinecrest (13-2-1) engaged in a tight defensive battle for much of the game. Neither team got many clean chances.
Myers Park took a 1-0 lead with 22 minutes, nine seconds left in the first half. Senior forward Caroline Pulliam scored after the Pinecrest goalie mishandled the ball and Pulliam tapped it in from about 15 yards out.
It was Myers Park’s first ever goal in a state final — the Mustangs lost 1-0 to Fuquay-Varina in the 2018 final, their first ever appearance in the title game.
With 10:50 to play in the second half, Mustangs senior Caileen Almeida added another goal, this time on a free kick from 40 yards out. It was her 25th goal of the season, to go with nine assists.
McCarley, completing his second decade as coach of the Mustangs’ soccer teams, said he has thought in recent days about what can be learned from coaching two teams to state finals in such a short span of time.
“I’ve come to realize that every game in the playoffs is really a state final,” he said. “If you lose, you’re out. And by the time to actually get to the state finals, it’s not a new experience.”
Reaching the final is certainly not a new experience for McCarley, an Elon University product who teaches Theory of Knowledge to ninth-graders in Myers Park’s International Baccalaureate program.
This was the eighth Myers Park team that he has coached to a state championship match.
McCarley was described by one Myers Park High teacher in an article a few years ago as a “coach of the mind.”
He works his teams hard to stay in shape, but McCarley puts a great emphasis on the mental aspect of the game.
Take Tuesday night’s 3-2 victory over Page in the semifinals. He was asked why the match seemed sloppy at times, with everything that was at stake.
“It’s how the mind works,” McCarley said. “Every player knows how much is on the line. There’s a lot at stake. Sometimes that is hard to play through. And when that happens, you sometimes revert to the simplest way of doing something.
“In the end, mentality and work ethic will carry you through. Having a great mentality and work ethic can put you in the right spot to make something happen.”
McCarley said that describes the plays in which sophomore Charlotte Simas and seniors Caroline Pulliam and Caileen Almeida scored goals against Page.
He says being in the proper frame of mind is crucial in close matches.
“You have to play the whole half like the next time you get the ball, you’ll score,” he told his team at halftime Tuesday, when they led 2-1.
“That helps them find the answers to their problems,” McCarley said.
Pulliam and Almeida said their coach is a big reason for this season’s success.
“We had quite a few new players this season, because we didn’t have a season last year,” Pulliam said, referring to the COVID-19 shutdown of spring sports. “Coach gave us the tools to come together and get where we are.”
Almeida added, “He is such a good teacher. All of us work hard for him.”
McCarley has worked hard too.
The girls’ soccer season began while he was still coaching the boys’ team. He would go from one team to the other each evening. But he is reluctant to take praise for that.
“There were a number of coaches in our area who were in the same position as me,” McCarley said. “They all had to do the same thing. They all deserve the credit.”
Friday night, the Mustangs faced an explosive Pinecrest team that scored four times in the closing 12 minutes of its semifinal match Tuesday. Pinecrest challenged Myers Park often Friday, but led by some good saves from goalie Lizzie Sarmiento.
“Getting to this point is the result of working hard, mentally and physically,” McCarley said. “At this point, the competition (was) going to be difficult. We (had) to rely on what has gotten us here.”
The rest of the girls’ state soccer finals are Saturday at Grimsley High, and it’s basically a Charlotte-versus-Raleigh showdown.
2A: At 11 a.m., Lake Norman Charter (18-0) faces Carrboro (13-2-1) for the 2A championship. It’s a rematch of the finals in 2019 – the last time girls’ soccer finals were played. That time, Carrboro won 4-3 on penalty kicks.
Carrboro has won four of the last five 2A girls’ titles. The Jaguars reached the finals by beating Clinton on penalty kicks Tuesday. Lake Norman Charter blanked South Point 4-0 in the semifinals.
1A: At 2:30 p.m. a couple of regulars in championship soccer will square off – Community School of Davidson (17-0) against Franklin Academy (12-0). Franklin Academy is making its sixth straight championship match appearance, including a 2017 victory over Community School of Davidson.
The Spartans are in the finals for the fourth time since 2014.
3A: The 6 p.m. finals pits Cox Mill (17-0-1) against Chapel Hill (12-0). These teams met for the championship in 2018, with Chapel Hill winning 1-0. Cox Mill is in the finals for the second time.
Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle