WAXHAW – Coming into this season, Marvin Ridge soccer coach Jason Zak knew his team could score, but wondered if the Mavs would ever round into the top-level defensive team that could compete for the school’s fourth championship.
The Mavs certainly knew how to find the back of the net, as they poured in 112 goals in 25 games good for nearly 4.5 scores per match.
Six players scored 10 or more goals including Patrick Papa (18 goals, 13 assists), Nick Jones (18 goals, seven assists), Anthony Garuba (16 goals), Zenou Tchamwa (16 goals, team-high 14 assists), Ben Wood (12 goals, eight assists) and Grant Sutherland (10 goals).
Together they helped the Mavs become the top scoring 3A team in the state.
But what really impressed Zak was the glimpses of brilliance his defense showed, as it combined to post 11 shutouts and started playing its best soccer as the season progressed.
“I don’t know if I ever really knew it,” Zak said of when he first realized this year’s team could be special. “You always hope for it. At times I’d see it. I’d be so impressed by what I saw at training that I’d stop them and let them know at times.
“Once the playoffs started is really when we started to play our best soccer. I thought we hit the ground running and had really peaked at the right time.”
The defense played well enough during the season, but had solidified by the playoffs as the Mavs shutout North Iredell (6-0), Enka (4-0), A.C. Reynolds (4-0), Asheville (3-0) and got past Mount Tabor (3-1) to reach the championship game.
The Mavs had been there before under Zak, winning titles with him in 2014 and 2016 and also winning the 2009 crown.
This time, the Mavs’ high-flying offense was meeting up with Chapel Hill, the stingiest team in 3A soccer who allowed 10 goals all season.
“From a state championship perspective, that’s kind of what you want,” Zak said. “It’s like the Super Bowl with the stingy defense against this great high-scoring offense.”
Just before the championship game, Zak and the Mavs suffered a setback as one of their starting defenders got in a car wreck and had to miss the final with a concussion.
“We play a diamond-shaped defense and he was our mid spot,” Zak said. “He hadn’t played it well all season and I hadn’t found a solution for it yet, but he started playing that spot really well the last two games. I was thinking we could stay in this formation and we were figuring it out. All of the sudden that happens, and I was right back at square one.
“I put Patrick Papa, who is an attacker of ours, in that spot in the final but that meant he didn’t get to attack. The second half we changed formations to allow him to attack more, but I’d say that loss is on me. It’s up to me to figure out a solution. I knew we’re losing a starter and it’s up to me to figure out a good gameplan to compensate for it and I don’t think I did that.”
In the championship, Jones got the game’s first real chance for the Mavs, sending a cross untouched through the box before Chapel Hill could eventually clear it.
Just minutes later, the Tigers attack made their way to the Mav side and fired a cross at goal that Marvin Ridge keeper Matt Semcesen made a brilliant save on.
Just moments later, in the 20th minute, Chapel Hill’s Kalvin Matishack headed a ball the Mavs failed to clear in front of the box past Semcesen and into the back of the net for the game’s only score.
Chapel Hill had two more great shots to ice the game. Leading scorer Tom Morioka fired a shot that Semcesen saved beautifully, making one of his six saves.
Then Morioka found teammate Gabo Tobin-Xet on a beautiful cross, but the ball sailed off the post and was cleared leading to a 1-0 tie at the half.
Early in the second half, Tigers got a pair of great looks from Cobi Promislow, who twice fired shots that Semcesen was able to redirect off goal and keep the Mavs in it.
That’s when the Mavs seemed to find their way a little, and Jones took advantage.
In the 53rd minute, Jones settled a cross from Tchamwa that was on goal, but saved by the Tiger goalkeeper.
“Chapel Hill was very good,” Zak said. “They moved the ball around very well and I love the style of soccer they play. I was trying to disrupt that and I think we did a pretty good job of that. I thought the first 10 minutes were strong and after that we kind of struggled. It feels like we were dominated for 30 minutes, but we had to make some changes. The guys played hard. I’m real proud of my guys. They came to when I needed them most and they were playing at a really high level. We can’t take that away from them.”
The Mavs couldn’t get another clean shot on goal, and the Tigers won the time of possession battle and out-shot Marvin Ridge 6-3 on the night. It was Chapel Hill’s second straight 3A title and fifth in school history.
For the Mavs, it’s not exactly back to the drawing board.
Zak said had it not been for injuries, the Mavs 2017 team likely would have played for a title as well, a feat that would have marked four times in his seven seasons at the school that his team would have been playing on the final day.
The Mavs will lose four of their top five scorers off this season’s team, but the bar has been raised to the point where anything less than a title is at least a little of a disappointment.
“I know it’s arrogant to say, but this is kind of my standard now,” Zak said. “I know it sounds arrogant to say it, but we know we’re going to make the playoffs, so there has to be a higher standard. I’ve been here seven years, and we’ve gone to the finals three times and should have been four…Out of the seven years there is one that I thought we didn’t have a shot, but that means there are six seasons that I do.
“There are a billion things I don’t know and a handful things that I do, and one of those is boys high school soccer. I know what good soccer looks like and I just know. If I think we can get there just about every year than that has to be the threshold and the standard for us.”