By Lee Noles
INDIAN TRAIL – In the middle of a tightly contested conference race this season, the Porter Ridge boys soccer team needed a break from the daily grind of practice and high stake games against tough competition.
What the Pirates (21-2) did was continue a tradition of traveling to neighboring Hemby Bridge Elementary to run a soccer clinic for third, fourth and fifth graders. This was the tenth year in a row the program made the trip.
“It teaches (the elementary students) a lot about the sport and gets them into the game of soccer,” senior defender Michael Fehl said. “It also allows us to blow off a little steam and enjoy it.”
The brief reprieve helped as the Pirates captured their third straight Southwestern 4A title when they blanked Hickory Ridge, 7-0, on Oct. 24. The win by Porter Ridge, coupled with Myers Park’s overtime loss to Independence, gave the Pirates a first-round bye in the playoffs, which start Nov. 3. With the bye, Porter Ridge will not play until Nov. 6 at home.
The idea for the clinic started when Pirate coach Ron Ladimir was looking for ways for his team to give back to the community. Ladimir was talking with his wife, Cindy, a few years ago about what they could do, and they developed the idea, contacted administration at Hemby Bridge and it went from there.
Ladimir takes the girls program in the spring to work with kindergarten and first and second grade students.
“You always want to do things for your cluster because they will be Porter Ridge students,” Ladimir said. “Because the little kids look up to the bigger kids, so it’s nice to have that going on”
The sessions split into two groups with the Pirates having about 45 minutes with each grade level. Fehl said the team gets together the night before to pair the players with the children, and decide which games are the best to play. Porter Ridge used to go through drills with the kids, but players realized games were the better option. They now have relay and dribbling games.
“It brings more competition because the kids like to play against each other,” Fehl said. “It gets more kids involved because they can be a little shy, so it is good to have them out there running around rather than just standing there.”
Ladimir said one of the interesting side effects of doing the clinic is seeing players who were there in elementary school now playing for the Pirates. Stanley Pitera is a sophomore midfielder who remembers when Porter Ridge came to Hemby Bridge when he was in fifth grade.
“(The players) encouraged us to come out to the games, and I figured I would be coming here for high school, and so my dad and myself came to a couple of them,” Pitera said. “I think this should always be going on. It’s good to show the kids something, and it’s entertaining.”
The clinic was more than just entertaining for Cameron Hightower. The junior midfielder said he now understands the responsibility the team has in being mentors to younger students. Hightower said he saw one of the children at Porter Ridge’s football game the following Friday.
“He called me coach,” Hightower said. “It made me feel like a teacher… It was more than teaching a game to them. It was more about teaching them the game of life.”
Hightower said he takes the work he did with the elementary school students very seriously. When he plays on the pitch for the Pirates, he understands he needs to show good sportsmanship because the children could be watching.
“It’s always about being respectful,” Hightower said. “If you see a kid in the crowd, or on the field… You have to compose yourself, and be the person you are supposed to be.”
The Pirates are now focusing their attention on a run to the program’s first state title. Porter Ridge’s best showing came two years ago when the Pirates took an unbeaten record into the state championship before losing to Green Hope, 3-0.
Last year was another successful season as the Pirates went 20-2-2 but lost to powerhouse Providence in the sectional finals.
Porter Ridge enters the playoffs this season on tear after winning eight straight. The Pirates have outscored their opponents by a 91-18 margin this season, and dominated on defense with 12 shutouts. The program’s only losses have come at the hands of state title contender Charlotte Catholic and Myers Park. The two programs are a combined 37-4-1 this season, and talented enough for a postseason run.
The first round bye for the Pirates can be viewed either a blessing or a curse for programs. On one hand, Porter Ridge has extra days to regroup and scout their next opponent. The other side of the argument is two weeks between the regular season and the second round can have teams falling out of game shape.
Ladimir said the long break is because teams in North Carolina were rescheduling games after Hurricane Florence.
“We are very good at being disciplined,” Fehl said of not letting down time have a negative effect. “I think it’s a good thing because we can see everything else unfold. We are still getting together and playing, and we can see what other teams are going to be like.”
Hightower knows all too well how unkind the playoffs have been to the Pirates. His older brother played in the state championship match two years ago, and Hightower was on last year’s team.
He said he would like nothing more than to finally capture a state title.
“I know how much we want it,” Hightower said. “And we put a lot of energy into it… When I came up, I wanted to win conference, beat Myers Park, win regional and a state championship. I just want to get (a state title).”