SOUTHERN PINES – Thirty years after it all started, Bennie Howard’s coaching career with the Richmond Senior High School boys soccer program is over. But not without one last fight from his boys.
The Raiders (11-9-1) saw their season come to a close Wednesday night, as they were on the road at Pinecrest High School in the semifinal round of the Sandhills Athletic Conference tournament. Despite implementing a rigorous defensive scheme, the No. 5- seeded Raiders lost 3-1 to the tournament’s top team.
Richmond needed to win the SAC tournament in order to earn a spot in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association playoffs, but those hopes were dashed, despite riding a wave of energy following Tuesday’s 2-1 “revenge game” win over Hoke County in the opening round.
Pincrest (19-2-1), which also won the regular season title, completed the season sweep of the Raiders, beating them in all three matchups. That was a different narrative from the 2016 season, when Richmond completed the two-game sweep on its journey to win the then Southeastern Conference title.
“We played well tonight, and we held our own,” Howard said of his players. “We ran a defensive-minded formation, and it worked for the most part. The boys played disciplined soccer tonight, but a couple of mistakes cost us two goals.”
Howard decided to approach the game with a heavier emphasis on defense, running a 4-2-3-1 scheme, which uses two midfielders as defensive aids to the four defenders. The plan was executed well until Pinecrest got things going offensively off a set piece.
The Patriots got on the board first in the 34th minute of the first half, scoring off a corner kick. Crashing the net, the Patriots made it tough on senior goalkeeper Marco Acosta when incidental contact was made and went uncalled. Pinecrest corralled the ball and poked it into the net for a 1-0 lead.
Netting its second goal of the first half, Pinecrest scored again on a similar play off a corner kick in the final minute. Acosta and junior teammate Evan Hudson miscommunicated on a bouncing ball through the box, and again, the ball was booted into the net from close proximity. The Patriots went into the locker room with a 2-0 lead.
The second half of the game was a little more productive for the Raiders, as they only allowed one goal, while also seeing the offense click a little more efficiently. According to Howard, in the 18th minute of the second half, Acosta came up in the box on a break-away play and tried to take away the angle and make an aggressive play. Unfortunately, he missed his mark, leaving the goal wide open behind him, letting Pinecrest jump out to a 3-0 lead.
Scoring one goal apiece for the Patriots was a trio of seniors which included Noah Edgerly, Christopher Everett and Ethan Santoyo. Adding assists for Pinecrest were juniors Jasper Ardinger (2) and Peyton Williamson (1), as well as senior Ryan Green (1).
Five minutes after the Patriots scored their final goal of the night, Richmond senior midfielder Victor Lucero added to his team-high goal total by drilling home a penalty kick following a Pinecrest foul in the box. It was Lucero’s 16th goal of the 2017 campaign.
“Victor has been my PK specialist ever since I’ve had him on the team as a ninth grader,” Howard noted. “He put the ball in the back of the net, and we did have some good opportunities in the second half. Carlos (Alcocer) had two or three shots that went wide or high, but we just weren’t able to connect.”
Pinecrest will host No. 2 Jack Britt High School in Thursday’s SAC championship match. The Buccaneers defeated No. 3-seeded Lumberton High School in their semifinals match Wednesday.
As it’s no secret to Howard, his career at the helm of the Richmond boys soccer program is over. Following Wednesday’s loss, Howard will finish his time as the boys head coach having coached 549 career games with a 289-215-45 record (.567 winning percentage) that spanned 30 years and saw over 600 players participate in the program.
“Like I told the boys, all good things do come to an end,” Howard said with a chuckle when asked what his 30-year journey has been like. “It’s bittersweet and not the way I wanted to go out. But I’ve had a lot of great memories with all my teams, but this unique bunch of guys have given me some new memories to reflect on.
“I hold every one of my players dear to my heart, and I’ll do anything for any of them,” Howard concluded.
Though Howard has composed half of his swan song, he’s looking forward to taking a short break before ramping up for the Richmond girl’s season in the spring.