Midway through the second half Monday, all of Rocky Mount High’s early chances were an afterthought.
As the Gryphons were slow to every loose ball, and loose with the ball in their own third, Rocky Mount’s extended possession in the attacking third during the first 40 minutes started to mean nothing.
But just as Northern Nash seemed poised to take the lead, and possibly extend its season another day, Rocky Mount proved that in a rivalry game, it only takes one.
Rocky Mount midfielder Chris Jacob received a long free kick from Logan Barnes, gathered the ball after a missed header and patiently placed the goal into the side netting.
The Gryphons held off a late surge by the Knights behind the goalkeeping of Jaquell Bryant to advance to the semifinals of the Big East Conference Tournament with a 1-0 victory, ending the Knights’ season in the process.
“It was a Northern-Rocky Mount game,” said Rocky Mount coach Drew Nick, whose team won two of three games against the Knights this year. “One of those tight games. I thought both teams played equally. I’m glad we were fortunate enough to come away with the win.”
Fourth-seeded Rocky Mount (10-9-3) will face No. 1 seed Wilson Hunt, which finished unbeaten in conference play, at 7 tonight. The Gryphons earned a 3-3 tie with the Warriors during the regular season.
Northern Nash (10-8-2), which was the fifth seed in the tournament, nearly pulled off the semi-upset but was unable to finish a barrage of chances in the second half.
“We can’t get on the end of the ball,” Northern Nash coach Joe McCarthy said. “We just don’t have a killer instinct. We don’t have the instinct to put the ball in the back of the net.”
That instinct likely will develop for the Knights, who will return all of their midfielders and forwards next season.
When Northern Nash, which lost eight of its final 11 games, did have a chance, Bryant was able to make the necessary saves.
In the 50th minute, Bryant made a diving save to his left on a shot from Knights’ forward Thomas Roy.
While that might have been the best save the 6-foot-7, first-year keeper made, in the final minute Bryant bailed out Rocky Mount a second time.
Northern Nash’s free kick from below the 18-yard box by Tyler Jones was redirected perfectly by Connor Woodburn only to have Bryant’s long arm reach out and knock it down.
“It was a test trial with him early in the season, and he (has) been there ever since,” Nick said. “He brings intimidation. He brings that championship mentality through his state titles. He (has) been wonderful for us in the goal.”
Bryant won state titles in boys’ basketball and track and field – winning the high jump last season.
The Gryphons needed every bit of Bryant’s resolve when they fell into a lull midway through the second half.
“We became complacent,” Nick said. “They had the energy. We fought through it luckily, but they had opportunities, ... it just didn’t hurt us.”
The lull very well could have hurt Rocky Mount. It only didn’t because the Gryphons had that one bounce.
“It’s a big rivalry game,” Jacob said. “One goal can pretty much turn a season around. We got it in, and we’re moving on to the next round.”
Justin Hite can be reached at 407-9951 or firstname.lastname@example.org