Saturday, 05 May 2018 09:32

Richmond’s Cinderella story falls short with loss to Pinecrest in SAC tournament championship

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ROSports File Photo: Pinecrest's Molly Niewald (7) scored a game-high four goals in Friday's SAC tournament championship win over Richmond. ROSports File Photo: Pinecrest's Molly Niewald (7) scored a game-high four goals in Friday's SAC tournament championship win over Richmond. Photo courtesy of Kyle Pillar.

SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. - The No. 3 seeded Richmond Lady Raiders soccer team’s Cinderella story came to an end Friday night on the road at No. 1 Pinecrest High School.

In the Sandhills Athletic Conference tournament championship match, the Lady Patriots finished the three-game sweep of Richmond by a final score of 7-2.

In what has been a record-setting season that saw the Lady Raiders earn their most single-season wins in program history with 17, head coach Bennie Howard coached his final conference game after an illustrious 30-year career.

Friday’s championship bout was the third time this season the Lady Raiders (17-5, 13-4 SAC) faced the Lady Patriots (22-1-3, 17-0 SAC). It was also the third time Richmond lost to Pinecrest this year, as the Lady Patriots won their fourth straight conference title in 2018. But this was familiar territory for the Lady Raiders, as they made it back to the conference title game for the second straight season. In 2017, the Lady Raiders dropped a double-overtime decision 3-2 to the girls from Southern Pines.

“I’m proud of what we’ve done the last two years, especially the fact that we’ve had a chance to play for a conference tournament championship,” Howard explained after the game. “Last year, we were the three seed and made the conference championship. And this year we tied for second (in the regular season) and made it back to play Pinecrest again.

“If there’s a moral to tonight’s loss, it’s that we didn’t get mercy-ruled for the third time (this season),” Howard continued, alluding to the two 9-0 losses to Pinecrest in the regular season. “We might have lost tonight, but we didn’t get mercy-ruled. So we’ll take the loss and move forward from it.”

Richmond’s run through the SAC tournament started with a coin toss to determine if it or Jack Britt High School would take the No. 2 seed. Losing the toss, the Lady Raiders notched the No. 3 seed and hosted No. 6 Hoke County on Tuesday. Blanking the Lady Bucks 5-0 behind a Hanna Millen hat trick, Richmond travelled to Jack Britt a night later to upset the Lady Buccaneers 3-1. Millen, Jayana Nicholson and Avy Lucero all scored goals to get the Lady Raiders into the championship round.

The rubber match win against Jack Britt marked two new milestones for the Lady Raiders, as it was the first time in program history that they beat the Lady Bucs on their home pitch and twice in a single season

In the previous two regular season matches between Richmond and the Lady Patriots, Pinecrest managed to end each game early by tallying nine goals in each contest while also blanking Richmond on the scoreboard in both matches.

Despite a solid start by the Lady Raiders Friday, which Howard noted his team having played “outstanding soccer” for the first 20 minutes, Pinecrest would get on the board first in the 19th minute thanks to senior Natalie Sabiston, who netted two goals in roughly a two-minute span. Just 10 minutes later, senior and SAC leading scorer Molly Niewald scored the first of her game-high four goals to put the Lady Patriots up 3-0.

“In the first 20 minutes of the game, our girls did exactly what we asked them to do,” Howard explained. “But we made a mistake in our own end when we didn’t clear the ball, lost possession and allowed them to score three goals in a short span.

“Before we know it, we’re down 3-0 and our heads drop,” he continued. “We couldn’t keep up with them speedwise, and had trouble maintaining mark ups on defense.”

Niewald would score two more goals and complete a first-half hat trick in the closing six minutes of the opening 40 minutes. But Richmond was able to stop the bleeding and shift the game’s momentum in the final five seconds of play before the break.

According to Howard, Nicholson took the ball and “broke loose” inside the 18-yard box and was fouled. Lucero, who has been Richmond’s go-to penalty kick specialist all year, broke the Lady Raiders into the scoring column when she blasted the penalty kick into the net with five seconds to go. Richmond would end the half down 5-1.

“At halftime, I tried to stress to the girls the need to find their marks and match up against their players,” Howard noted. “But not a minute into the second half, Pinecrest comes out and one of their players blows right past our defense in the middle of the field and scores to put us down 6-1.”

The goal Howard is referring to is when Pinecrest’s Keeley Cooper managed to get past the Richmond defense and beat sophomore goalkeeper Allexis Swiney for her lone goal of the night. In just her third postseason match, Howard complimented Swiney’s efforts, saying she had “some great saves” to keep the game within striking distance for the Lady Raiders.

Niewald would add her fourth and final goal of the night with 32 minutes remaining in regulation to put the Lady Patriots up 7-1. But Richmond junior Emily Parsons answered right back a minute later, scoring her first goal of the season with a left-footed shot inside box after getting around a defender.

“We’re still a pretty young team, so I’ll take the losses to Pinecrest,” Howard concluded. “We’ve only lost five games this season, and three of them were to Pinecrest. They’re a loaded team, and Molly (Niewald) has all the attributes to go to the next level.

“We finished in the upper echelon on the conference this year, and I’m proud to say we did that,” the head coach added. “We’ll take it from here and go one game at a time in the state playoffs.”

According to Howard, the state playoff brackets will be “finalized and released on Monday.” At the time of this publication, Richmond is projected to host Mooresville High School (Iredell County). The Lady Blue Devils defeated Mallard Creek High School Friday, and Howard said the plan is to play the opening-round match on Wednesday.

Kyle Pillar

Three-time award-winning sports editor. Indiana University of Pennsylvania communications media and journalism alumni. English teacher, Ninth Grade Academy.

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