Firebirds advance to Big East soccer finals


Sports Writer

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Without an ounce of panic in his stride, Southern Nash forward Eric Mendoza took on the one Rocky Mount defender between him and a Firebirds lead.

He settled himself from just outside the box, cleared some space to the right, and deposited a trickling shot to the far left corner of the net, just beyond the frozen reach of Gryphons goalie Sam Phillips.

That goal, six minutes into the second half Tuesday at Southern Nash in the second round of the Big East conference tournament, gave the first-seeded Firebirds (12-6-2) their first lead. They tacked on one more 12 minutes later, eventually knocking off fifth-seeded Rocky Mount, 3-1.

For the Gryphons (6-8-1), who beat Franklinton on Tuesday night in a first round game, there was an early lead at 1-0 followed by three straight goals allowed.

“We just kind of looked one in early but the energy level, the course of play, it was as the outcome turned out,” Rocky Mount coach Richard Oxendine said. “Our energy was not where I would have liked it to be the entire game.”

The lone goal for Oxendine’s attack came just six minutes into the game, when Demetrius Morton crossed a ball from the left wing that hung around the box long enough to be poked in by Gus Velasquez.

But the scoring opportunities were scarce from there, as a well-rested Southern Nash team controlled the pace of play for much of the remainder of the game.

A bit of fatigue may have been present, said Oxendine, but that was the reward for the Firebirds.

“That’s conference tournament play,” he said. “We ended no. 5 in the conference. They were no. 1 in the conference. They had a bye. That’s how it falls.”

The equalizer for Southern Nash was converted by Justin Vazquez, who acted as a general thorn in the Gryphons’ side until finally breaking through with a one-timed left-footed kick from outside the box.

The senior forced the issue throughout the first half, his strike a culmination of his relentless attack.

“Yesterday we had been practicing about just taking shots when we had a chance as quick as possible. We tend to hesitate and miss a lot of chances,” Vazquez said. “So just ripped it.”

Aside from a few tantalizing chances after falling behind 3-1, the Gryphons didn’t generate much in the way of scoring threats in the second half, and a goal by Javier Ramirez with 18 minutes left put the game out of reach. Southern Nash also had a penalty kick with three minutes left, but missed over the bar by a few feet.

“We’ve had a lot of one goal differential games and when we went down I said, ‘I fully expect for us to be able to handle situations like that,’’ said Firebirds coach Carlos Barron, whose team will play in the conference title game today. “After that, I actually felt confident that they would respond.”