Rocky Mount High and Northern Nash flipped a coin before Monday’s game in case a tiebreaker was needed after 80 minutes.
A Knights’ win would have tied the two teams in the Big East Conference, and because the Knights won the toss, they would have secured the league’s No. 3 seed.
The Gryphons responded by playing well enough that none of the tiebreakers mattered. Rocky Mount was far and away the better side at Northern Nash High School, winning its regular season finale, 5-1, against the Knights.
A tie would have been good enough to clinch the league’s third and final playoffs spot, but Rocky Mount had only one result in mind.
“A tie for us just isn’t good enough. I told the girls that it had to be a win,” Rocky Mount coach Drew Nick said. “I just told the girls we’re shooting for the win.”
Rocky Mount (10-7-2, 6-4 Big East) turned in arguably its best game of the season. Sarah Bland scored three times and the Gryphons kept the Knights (9-7, 4-6) in their defensive half for most of the night.
Northern Nash gambled by putting Alexus Hill – normally a forward – in goal. Northern Nash coach Joe McCarthy said the Knights planned to clog the midfield, but the Gryphons were able to create chances anyway.
The Knights warded off a fifth-minute scramble in the box and Hill made two point-blank saves on Bland before the Gryphons finally broke through in the 26th minute. Emily Vick jumped up to midfield from her spot at defender and played a perfect diagonal through ball to Bland, who was alone on Hill for a simple goal.
Bland exposed the Northern Nash defense again three minutes later, sending a cross across the face of the goal to a wide-open Kaitlyn Jacob, who tapped in for a 2-0 lead.
“I think we were under a little bit of pressure to play well, and I think we did,” Bland said. “I think we came out and really had our heads in the game and really wanted it.”
With Hill not paired with Rebekah Beal at the top of the Knights’ formation, Rocky Mount had the better of possession and a 3-0 lead before Hill was moved back to forward out of necessity early in the second half.
“We take Alexus and put her (in goal), we’re just putting an athletic person in goal,” McCarthy said. “When we take her out of the attack, we drop off tremendously. ... By the end, we had to try to create some offense.”
Beal scored in the 68th on darting run around the left back, but by then, the Knights were down, 4-1, with time running out. Bland’s tap-in five minutes later removed any doubt.
Rocky Mount will go to the playoffs unless Northern Nash upsets its way to a Big East Tournament championship.
To do so, the Knights likely would have to beat both Wilson Fike and Wilson Hunt. They went a combined 0-4 against the Warriors and Golden Demons and were outscored, 28-0.
Had the Knights won Monday, they likely would have had to play Rocky Mount for a play-in game to go to the playoffs.
Even with the loss Monday, Northern Nash is likely to receive an at-large bid to the playoffs.
The Gryphons are likely to be in the field, and they were pleased to have played themselves into a spot.
“This was a good result for us. We played well and together,” Nick said. “It took us a little bit of time to break the seal on the goal, but once we did that, it opened the flood gates a little bit.”
Rocky Mount High 5
Northern Nash 1
Goals: RMH: Sarah Bland 3 - 26’, 63’, 73’; Kaitlyn Jacob 29’; Barkley Browder 46’. NN: Rebekah Beal 68’.
Assists: RMH: Emily Vick 2; Mary McCall Leland; Bland. NN: Natalie DePalma.
Shots: RMH: 23 (17). NN: 5 (2).
Saves: Alexus Hill (NN) 8; Olivia Bunn (NN) 5; Sydney Philbeck 1.
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz @rmtelegram.com