BAILEY – When the final whistle sounded, there was no reaction from the Southern Nash bench.
The Firebirds clinched the first regular season Big East championship in school history with a 3-0 victory against Wilson Hunt on Wednesday at Southern Nash High School, but there were simple reasons for the lack of celebration: The Firebirds expect to be here, and the work isn’t finished.
“We’ve been rolling pretty good, but I want them to keep focused to see how far we can go,” Southern Nash coach John Matthews said. “The conference is the first priority, but I want to see what we can do past that.”
Southern Nash (10-4-1, 7-0 Big East) clinched the regular season title and the No. 1 seed in the Big East Tournament by way of tiebreakers. Both Wilson Hunt and Wilson Fike are three games back of Southern Nash with three to play, though the Firebirds would break a tie with either team because they have beaten both twice during the regular season.
The Firebirds have taken a lesson from the Warriors (9-4-1, 4-3), who were the heavy favorite a season ago.
“We learned not to be too confident,” Southern Nash center back Carlos Leon said. “No matter who we’re playing, we have to be aggressive. We’re still the same team we’ve always been.”
Southern Nash jumped on Hunt in the early stages. After a few chances in the game’s opening minutes, the Firebirds connected.
Midfielder Moises Gonzalez found space in the midfield and played an excellent through ball between the left back and center back, which led Miguel Salazar into the 18-yard box. Salazar took one touch, then his low drive to the far post easily beat exposed Hunt goalkeeper Andrew Sorrell.
“We thought we were going to be able to use our speed on the wings,” Salazar said. “We knew from the first game (against Hunt) that the through balls would be there.”
Though the Firebirds front line terrorized the Warriors’ defense, Sorrell kept the game within one score longer than it probably should have been. Southern Nash forward Ben Liles slipped past the Warriors’ back line three times in the first half, only to have Sorrell stop him each time.
It was Leon who helped decide the final margin with two headers. The first came off a 52nd-minute corner from Nilton Perez, the second off a 63rd-minute through ball from Gonzalez.
Leon was just as happy with the Firebirds’ defense, which kept a clean sheet for the fifth conference game in a row.
“I think it’s just our communication,” Leon said. “We trust each other. I know the other guys back there have my back, and I have theirs.”
Matthews’ goal since he became Southern Nash’s coach was to do something each year the school never had done.
The first year, the Firebirds won 14 games – a school record.
The second year, they finished second in the Big East and made the conference championship – also a first.
This year, they’ve won the school’s first-ever Big East regular season championship.
And he’s certain his squad can do more.
“Based on what I hear, I don’t hear any bravado or anything like that,” Matthews said. “We do the same thing a practice every day, a little routine that we fall into. They want it. They’re hungry for it.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com