BAILEY – Rocky Mount High’s reward for beating Northern Nash on Monday – a road game against the Big East Conference’s best team 20 hours later – didn’t feel much like a trophy.
The Big East Tournament semifinals played out just as the seeding suggested it would, as No. 1 seed Southern Nash easily trumped the fifth-seeded Gryphons, 4-0, Tuesday at Southern Nash High School.
“I can’t take anything away from Southern Nash, but I think we put everything into winning our last match (against Northern Nash),” Rocky Mount High coach Drew Nick said. “We knew it was a long shot that we’d come here and win, and that we’d have to limit our mistakes, but it wasn’t there.”
The Firebirds (14-4-1) remained perfect in the Big East despite a sluggish first 10 minutes. The game’s early moments were played at the pace of Rocky Mount (5-12-1), but that changed quickly and decisively.
In the 18th minute, midfielder Moises Gonzalez played Tristan Stallings into space, which Stallings used to strike a hard shot at Rocky Mount goalkeeper Drew Thompson. The rebound came to the feet of Miguel Salazar, who had followed the play to set up an easy shot into a wide-open net for a 1-0 lead.
“We had just fussed at the team for not following up,” Southern Nash coach John Matthews said. “Miguel did exactly what we wanted just a few minutes later. Once we get that first goal, we seem to want to go out there and get some more.”
Nilton Perez gave the Firebirds a 2-0 edge three minutes after Salazar’s goal, finding himself with plenty of time and space at the top of the 18-yard box to hammer a left-footed strike past Thompson.
The Firebirds’ back line was solid again. Goalkeeper Will Liles saw a total of two shots on goal – both from long range– and wasn’t forced to make a save until the 62nd minute.
Southern Nash’s strength in front of Liles has been keeping the ball in the middle and attacking third, which is where Southern Nash features most of its skill.
“It helps us out a lot that they keep us from any trouble,” Gonzalez said. “Our back line is playing well. Carlos (Leon, the center back) does a great job of keeping our line together, and that lets us build from the back.”
As a result, nearly the entire second half was played in the Gryphons’ defensive third with Rocky Mount simply trying to limit the damage.
Gonzalez dribbled through the midfield and around the right back in the 43rd minute, then threaded a ground pass to Sergio Penaloza, who sent the ball past an exposed Thompson.
Tristan Stallings finished the scoring with 61st minute header, set up by Gonzalez’s cross into the area.
Southern Nash will play Wilson Hunt - who defeated Wilson Fike, 2-0, in the other semifinal - in the Big East Tournament championship at 5 p.m. Thursday.
“Like I told them at halftime, we can’t be content,” Matthews said. “That’s the biggest thing. We have to know we can get beat at any time.”
Rocky Mount will return all but two players and 10 of its starters, the lone exception being Thompson in goal.
Though this was the first time the Gryphons missed the playoffs in Nick’s five-year tenure, he said the Gryphons are building.
“We took our lumps, but the kids fought in every game with maybe the exception of one or two,” Nick said. “This was a learning experience. Sometimes you have to go back before you go forward.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or at npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com.