Last season it took the Northern Nash boys’ soccer team a wild–card berth to punch a ticket into the state playoffs. This year, coach Joe McCarthy believes that his team is strong enough to reach the postseason on its own merit.
With the Twin Counties’ top player, a key transfer and an abundance of youth, Northern Nash is set to challenge a difficult Big East Conference that sent five teams to the NCHSAA 3–A state playoffs last season.
“I think anyone can beat anyone on any given night,” McCarthy said.
With Southern Nash in a rebuild, Rocky Mount High trying to fuse experience with youth and Nash Central coming off a losing season, McCarthy feels that the Knights are in prime position to compete with Wilson Hunt and Wilson Fike for a conference title.
The Knights return a pair of 2013 Telegram All–Area selections in sophomore forward Sammy Cervantes and junior midfielder Tyler Jones. They also add Southern Nash transfer Tristan Marshall at goalie and welcome two freshmen who are expected to be regulars in the starting XI.
“We got a lot of people coming back from last year, but a few guys playing in different positions to get more production,” McCarthy said. “It’s just going to be a learn as we go process, but we’re better as a team.”
Cervantes is the Knights’ most technically gifted player – and one of the better in the area – but the strength of the team lies in the its defense.
Senior Ben Roy has moved from goalie to center back, and he will be paired with junior Jacob Kavel in the middle. The duo will have support from Jones, who is known as a box–to–box type midfielder which is needed in the gruelling week–to–week scheduling of the Big East.
At Southern Nash, senior midfielder Ishmael Rodriguez will look to build on what Moises Gonzalez was able to accomplish in three seasons. Gonzalez was the Telegram’s three–time All–Area Player of the Year, and he led the Firebirds to back–to–back conference titles in 2012 and 2013.
But with Gonzalez now sporting a UNC–Greensboro jersey, Rodriguez will have to carry the Firebirds by himself. Southern Nash has to replace 11 seniors from last year’s squad.
“I don’t think we’re a one–name team anymore,” Southern Nash coach Kurt Bienias said. “We have a lot of holes to fill. But if we’re capable of winning 10 conference games, we’re also capable of losing 10 conference games.”
Tarboro enters year two in the 1–A Two Rivers Conference, and they will try to defend last year’s conference title. The Vikings welcome back senior center back Matthew Parker and sophomore goalie Jordan Williams.
Vikings coach LeShaun Jenkins said he crafted his schedule to give his boys a challenge. Tarboro doesn’t play any 1–A schools outside of the conference schedule, and they will compete at the Coaches Kickoff Classic on Sept. 5 in Cary with top teams from across the state.
“My expectations are to win the conference,” Jenkins said. “We’re not selling ourselves short, I think we can reach at least the 1–A Elite 8. We were young last year, but we haven’t made any changes, we have just developed.”
Faith Christian will begin the process of trying to replace Dustin Hendricks, the school’s all–time leading scorer. The Patriots are led by senior defender Noah Gilley and goalie Matthew Sanderford. They are expected to be in the mix for a playoffs seed along with rival Rocky Mount Academy in the 1–A Eastern Plains Conference.
Five Players to Watch
1. Sammy Cervantes, So., F, Northern Nash – The Knights will work out of a 4–3–3 formation this season with Cervantes in a modified “False 9” role. His job will be to roam the midfield and create problems for opposing defenders with his vision and pace.
2. Isamel Rodriguez, Sr., M, Southern Nash – Rodriguez, who goes by Ish, has been held out of preseason training because of an injury, but he’s expected to be ready for the season. That’s good news for the Firebirds, because they will need last season’s Telegram All–Area selection.
3. Matthew Parker, Sr., D, Tarboro – A two–time all–region pick, Parker is a skilled 6–foot–1 center back. He’s a four–year starter who will provide leadership for a team that is chasing its second straight conference title.
4. Garrett Webb, Sr., F, Rocky Mount High – Webb netted three goals in the Gryphons opening game of the season. A four–year starter, he will be the target man up top for a young, but talented squad. He’s already attracting college scouts.
5. Jacob Kavel, Jr., D, Northern Nash – A center back who works his way into the midfield, Kavel is the vocal leader of the Knights’ defense. He isn’t afraid to put his body on a forward or distribute the ball from the back of the defense.
Sports writer Andrew Ivins can be reached at 407–9951 or aivins @rmtelegram.com