Tuesday, 08 May 2018 05:05

PLAYOFF PREVIEW: No. 13 seeded Lady Raiders soccer looking for first home playoff win in over a decade

Written by
Rate this item
(2 votes)
Lady Raiders head coach Bennie Howard watches his team practice Monday ahead of Wednesday's opening round playoff game against No. 20 Porter Ridge. Lady Raiders head coach Bennie Howard watches his team practice Monday ahead of Wednesday's opening round playoff game against No. 20 Porter Ridge. Photo courtesy of Kyle Pillar.

ROCKINGHAM - For the first time “in quite a while,” the Richmond Lady Raiders soccer team will host an opening-round NCHSAA 4A state playoff game this Wednesday. And for head coach Bennie Howard, it will be his last career game on his home turf.

With the official brackets released Monday afternoon, the Lady Raiders nabbed the No. 13 seed in the west bracket, and is set to square off against No. 20 Porter Ridge High School in the opening round Wednesday night at 7 p.m.

Not only is the No. 13 seed the highest seed Richmond has had in over a decade, but it is also coming off its best career single-season record, having tallied a 17-5 overall record (.773 winning percentage). Porter Ridge, which is based in Indian Trail, N.C., and plays in the Southwestern Conference, finished the 2018 season with a 12-8 record.

The Lady Raiders, which began play in 1994, have only entered the state playoffs at a higher seed one time before. According to Howard, the 2004 squad entered the tournament as a No. 2 seed, defeated Pine Forest High School in the opening round, but was upset in the second round by New Bern High School. The only other time Richmond has hosted an opening-round matchup was in 1997, when the Lady Raiders beat New Hanover High School 3-0, but were also bounced in the second round of play (lost to E.A. Laney High School 1-0).

Howard has coached at Richmond for 30 years, having helped start the boys program in 1988, before building the girls team six years later. He’s set to retire at the end of the 2018 school year.

Over the past three seasons, Howard’s Lady Raiders made the playoffs all three times, but have failed to make it past the first round. Noting that all three matches were played on the road in the west bracket, Richmond exited the tournament in 2017 as a No. 18 seed in a 7-0 loss to No. 15 Providence High School. The year before, Richmond was the No. 21 seed, and was mercy-ruled by No. 12 Grimsley High School. And in 2015, the year that started the current four-year postseason run, the No. 22 seeded Lady Raiders lost in closer fashion, this time 4-2, to No. 11 J.M. Robinson High School.

But this year, Howard feels differently about his team’s chances of ending the second-round drought and advancing deeper into the state playoffs. But first off, he’s proud of his team for working hard to get him another home match before retiring.

“Over the last three years, we’ve had to start out on the road,” Howard said while directing his players through passing drills at Monday’s practice. “We’re looking forward to having an opportunity to have a home game. The win over Jack Britt (High School) in the (Sandhills Athletic Conference) tournament allowed us to be at home. And I know the girls are appreciative of that.

“I’ve also done a little research,” Howard continued. “Porter Ridge has scored 60 goals on the year, and only given up 21 goals. They don’t have any seniors on their team, and Jay Niessner (head coach at Central Academy of Technology and Arts) gave me some game film to allow us to study who their goal scorers are.”

Howard explained that Porter Ridge hasn’t entered any team or personal stats on Maxpreps.com, which makes the game film all that more important. He also threw out Richmond’s scoring numbers this year as a comparison, stating that the Lady Raiders have netted 70 goals in 22 games (3.18 goals per game), while giving up 39 goals in that same span (1.77 goals per game allowed).

The head coach also expressed how well his players have done outside of the 25 goals they’ve given up in three matches against No. 3 seed Pinecrest High School in the regular season. Against all other opponents, Richmond’s defense and goalkeeping has only allowed 1.57 goals per game.

“I told the girls that they need to come out (against Porter Ridge) and play like there’s no tomorrow,” Howard said. “We’re at home and have a shot at making it to the second round. I’ve been stressing to them not to let this opportunity slip through their fingers.”

Since the season began at the end of February, Howard knew this time would come eventually. Noting he’d “give anything to know we’ll win on Wednesday,” Howard hopes to have started his final season before retirement with a win at home (defeated J.M. Robinson 2-0 on March 2) and cap it off with a big opening round victory when the Lady Pirates roll into town midweek.

“The girls deserve this,” Howard said of getting a chance to play in front of their home crowd one last time this season. “They’ve done a fantastic job playing, and have grown a lot since the beginning of the year. We haven’t made a lot of mistakes lately, and our confidence is high right now after beating Hoke County (High School) and Jack Britt in the conference tournament. That confidence should give us a boost for Wednesday.”

In the SAC tournament last week, then No. 3 Richmond rolled to a 5-0 win over No. 6 Hoke County in part to a hat trick by senior striker Hanna Millen. A night later, Richmond traveled to Fayetteville and upset No. 2 Jack Britt 3-1 thanks to three different goal scorers to take the rubber match in the season series.

Howard explained that the mission Wednesday will to be keep his players relaxed and that they need to seize the opportunity in front of them. To help with the easement of potential nerves, Howard had all of his players get massages Monday, and is having a couple of parents cook a spaghetti dinner for a pregame meal on Wednesday.

“In order to win, we need to play a full 80 minutes. In the state playoffs, there’s no opportunity to wait 10 or 15 minutes to start to play soccer,” Howard explained. “We need to start better than them (Porter Ridge) and be clicking on all cylinders. I need to keep everyone on the bright side. If we win, we move on -- if not, we pack up and go home. And I’m not ready to end things yet. I want to go a little longer.”

As far as what he’s tried to relay to his players what their mentality should be entering Wednesday’s matchup, Howard reminded them of their successes this season. Noting that his team “didn’t go 17-5 by just showing up at games,” he reminded the Lady Raiders that they need to play with the same sense of urgency and he needs everyone to show up and contribute.

“Everyone did their part this season, especially in the conference tournament,” Howard stated. “I hope we can carry that momentum over into the playoffs. Even though we didn’t win against Pinecrest Friday (in the SAC tournament championship), it was the better of the three games this season. The girls need to keep marking up consistently and bring it 110 percent.”

This season, several Lady Raiders players have impressed on the stat sheet. Three players reached double digits in goals, with Millen leading the way with 13 goals in 21 games played. Juniors Morgan Hooks (12 goals) and Chloe Wiggins (11 goals) were equally as dominant, scoring big time goals in several key matches this season. Both juniors were also just two of four Lady Raiders to play all 22 games this season.

Other notable performers are junior Jayana Nicholson (nine goals), junior Jessi Graham (six goals) and sophomore Avy Lucero (six goals). In net, sophomore goalkeeper Allexis Swiney, who made appearances in all 22 games during her first year at the varsity level, made 108 saves on 127 opportunities for an .850 save percentage. In the SAC tournament semifinal win over Jack Britt, Howard said Swiney made “six of seven fantastic saves” to keep Richmond ahead of the Lady Buccaneers.

Over the past couple of seasons, Porter Ridge has made a dent in the state playoffs. Its best seeding in the past few years was in 2016, when it was ranked as the No. 3 seed in the west. But the Lady Pirates were upset 2-1 in the third round by No. 7 West Forsyth High School, which eventually went on to lose in the state semifinal round to No. 1 seed Providence. Last year, Porter Ridge was a No. 13 seed, and was also upset and bounced in the third round, this time by No. 12 Charlotte Catholic High School 3-0.

“Of course I’m thinking about it,” Howard wrapped up, noting that his coaching career is winding down. “The other day Chris (Larsen) and I were cutting grass on the field, and I thought how it could be the last time I do that. Wednesday could be my last game as Richmond’s head coach, or if we win, the next game could be my last bus ride with the team.

“It’ll be bittersweet when it happens, and I’m going to try to not get emotional,” he added. “I’ll try to hold back the tears. But I hope to go as far as we can.”

With a win Wednesday, Richmond will hit the road Friday for a second-round matchup against No. 4 Providence (13-2-1), which earned a bye in the first round.

Last modified on Tuesday, 08 May 2018 09:59
Kyle Pillar

Sports Editor. IUP communications media and journalism alumni. English teacher, Ninth Grade Academy.

Submit local sports scores to: kpillar@richmondobserver.com

Twitter: ROSports_

Instagram: ROSports