Cuthbertson’s second-year soccer program getting even stronger
by Aaron Garcia
In reality, Cuthbertson boys soccer coach Nelson Garner probably would prefer not to have a story written about his team right now. It’s not that the Cavaliers don’t deserve it – they’ve been arguably Union County’s strongest team all season and have a 17-0-1 record to prove it. They tied Weddington on Aug. 26, beat Porter Ridge 2-0 on Sept. 2 and swept Central Academy, outscoring the Cougars 8-0 in two games. On the season, they’ve posted 15 shutouts and are outscoring opponents 72-6. Heading into the postseason, the Cavaliers are the state’s No. 1-ranked Class 2A team, according to eurosportscoreboard.com.
So, yes, the team deserves the attention. But that doesn’t mean Garner wants it.
“I’m trying to keep them grounded right now,” he said with a chuckle.
Garner’s done a pretty good job of keeping his team grounded for two years now. Last season, Cuthbertson’s first, the Cavaliers laid a pretty impressive blueprint for this year’s success. Garner’s squad finished the season 17-5-1 and advanced to the third round of the Class 2A playoffs before losing to eventual state champion Shelby, 2-1 – the first two goals Cuthbertson had allowed in the postseason.
But Garner admits that being a first-year school helped the team’s cause last season, a luxury they can’t rely on this year, especially with such a lofty ranking.
“It takes the target and makes it bigger,” said Garner of the accolades. “Last year, we were the unknown. We snuck up on a lot of people as a first-year school. This year’s been completely different. We’ve gotten everyone’s best shot, every game. That’s one of the things I’m really proud of the guys about – rising to the occasion through this point. It would be easy to be asleep for a few of those games and not be ready. But they have been very mature.”
Much of that maturity has been spawned by an unusual camaraderie. Garner said this year’s Cavalier club is the closest he’s ever coached. The players hang out together off the field, which has engendered a level of accountability that’s kept the team moving in the right direction.
“I rarely question their effort, on the game field or the practice field,” said Garner. “We’ve got some talented players, but we’ve also worked really hard.”
But that doesn’t mean Garner isn’t using the ranking as motivation.
“In practice, if we’re slacking, he’ll say, ‘You’re the No. 1 team in the state, you shouldn’t be doing this,’” said midfielder and co-captain Matt Cureton. “That helps us all get motivated and play our best.”
But this isn’t a team effort that’s helped mask a lack of talent. Goalkeeper and co-captain Trent Johnson was a N.C. Soccer Coaches Association All-State selection last season. Cureton is one of the county’s best distributors, while forward John Lewthwaite is an effective striker. But none of that matters on the field, said Garner.
“I think it’s just the mix of guys we have and the leadership we have,” the coach said. “Nobody here thinks they’re bigger than the team, and we’ve got some good players that will probably play (in college) some day. But they don’t look at themselves as anything bigger than the team, and that’s it. It starts with the leadership. We’ve got some great leaders.”
But Johnson explained that it was a teamwide effort during strenuous summer workouts that really helped galvanize the Cavaliers.
“We’ve put the time in at practice, so when it comes to game time, we’re ready to play,” he said.
With the playoffs quickly approaching, Garner said his team hasn’t quite gotten to where it needs to be. Garner’s idea of a successful program requires a certain amount of fluency – every player needs to be able to line up at any position.
“We’re not a really deep team, so if I need someone to move from defender up to striker, he ought to know exactly what he needs to do, and vice versa,” Garner said. “Being a good soccer player means you’re comfortable anywhere on the field and you understand your role.”
Garner’s theory has been put to the test for a few weeks, after defender Matt Yarussi suffered a concussion during a bus accident on Oct. 16. As a result, Garner had to do some shuffling. Despite the shakeup, the Cavaliers went 5-0 in Yarussi’s absence and outscored their opponents 22-1.
“They did a great job last week,” said Garner. “That’s the way good teams have to be. If you lose one player, you need a couple of guys to plug in there that are ready. Everyone else has to step up.”
Garner said he hopes Yarussi will get cleared to play before the playoffs begin on Wednesday, Nov. 3. With the regular season complete, Garner explained that his next job is to get his team ready for the postseason. Sure, they got a taste of things last season, but this year is different. There is statewide attention on the program and a healthy level of respect from its opponents, so whatever teeth-cutting took place last year probably won’t do them much good.
“It’s a new season as we go into next week,” said Garner. “Everything you’ve done to this point really has no bearing on anything.
“They’ve got to raise their level of play because that first playoff game, the intensity goes up tenfold. If you’re not ready to go, any team can beat you, especially in the playoffs, because there’s a reason they’re there. We’re going to focus a lot on the basics, but we’re really going to try to play with a great intensity in practice and be prepared for the speed of the game. It does pick up, there’s no holding back at that point.
“We have to stay humble and hungry. Sometimes that’s hard to do when you’re undefeated. We’ve got to find a way to find that motivation to be extremely hungry, because that’s what’s gotten us here.”