MOORESVILLE — The number 23 is often synonymous with greatness.
The number was made famous by arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, as well as being the age of a certain Mount Airy News sports reporter that wrote this article.
For the Mount Airy soccer team, the number 23 represents history. The Granite Bears defeated Pine Lake Preparatory High School 1-0 Saturday to earn school-record win number 23. The win also sends the Bears to the regional finals, a feat achieved only once in school history.
“It’s just been, really, an awesome season.” Bears coach Will Hurley said. “These kids never quit, I’m just so proud of them. It’s a great group of young men.”
Going into the regional semifinals, Mount Airy was the lowest remaining seed (12) and was matched up against the top-ranked team in the state in Pine Lake, although MaxPreps had them closer as fourth and first in the state, respectively.
“I think we’ve been under-ranked all year,” Hurley said. “Hats of to them, they’re a great team. It was a great game.”
The first few minutes of play served as a feeling-out process for both teams. Each mounted a small amount of offense, but didn’t make an attempt at the goal until minute 8, when Pine Lake’s shot was deflected out for a corner kick.
With the Pine Lake Pride pressing its midfield up, Hurley left Austin Tumbarello in line with the opposing back line. Robert Brown and Jackson Tumbarello began the game with aerial through-balls to Austin.
The game slowed down after minute 10. Robbie Janiczek was the distributor for the Pride. Janiczek passed the ball around the Pine Lake midfield and waited for an opportunity to strike.
The Bears continued to feed through balls to Austin Tumbarello and Jarrett Jimenez. However, it was a pass to midfielder Julio Contreras that would lead to a Mount Airy goal.
Contreras trapped a pass from the Bear defense, took one touch, and fired a shot from 35 yards out. Contreras’ shot soared perfectly over keeper Patrick Hannagan’s reach to put the Bears ahead in minute 13.
One thing of note in the match-up at Pine Lake was the field itself. Besides being entirely gray instead of green, the field was turf. Players often lost their footing on shots and long passes.
Pine Lake responded to the Bears’ goal with a flurry of offense. Janiczek and the Pride midfield attacked the sidelines with passes to Tanner Knauer and Colton Cox. Mount Airy’s defense limited shots inside the box and forced the Pride to take longer attempts.
This didn’t stop Pine Lake from threatening Bear keeper Jesus Valadez. A shot from Jake McMillen outside the 18-yard box soared just right of the Mount Airy goal.
Despite holding a lead, Mount Airy continued to attack the right sideline. Lachino and Bryan Valadez continued to feed Austin Tumbarello, letting the junior striker use his speed to get past opponents.
Instead of charging the box, Austin centered the ball to Lachino. Lachino’s shot was deflected out of bounds for the first Mount Airy corner kick, 28 minutes into the first half.
The final minutes of the first half were dominated by the home team. It was here that the Pride accumulated many of their seven first-half shots, to the Bears’ four.
Jackson Tumbarello protected the middle of the field as a last resort, while Jesus Luna and Dante Collins guarded the sidelines. Long shots tested Jesus Valadez, however the junior kept his playoff shutout streak alive to end the first half.
“It’s nothing-nothing,” Hurley told his team. “If they score, we’re down a goal. All year long, our motto has been one game at a time, one goal at a time.”
The physicality picked up in a second half that featured a combined 18 fouls. Both teams went all-out, knowing that one of them would play their final match that evening.
McMillen wasted little time making a run up the right sideline. McMillen’s cross led to a shot from Matt Venkus that flew wide right of the Bears’ goal from 25 yards out. Despite failing to score, the Pride kept the ball in Mount Airy territory for a good part of the second half with crisp passing.
Bryan Valadez attacked the left sideline for the Bears and looked for Austin Tumbarello on a cross. Valadez’s cross was headed away by the Pine Lake defense.
Continuing the trend of impressive defense, Luna had consecutive hustle plays that kept the Bears ahead. The first saw Jackson Tumbarello clear the ball toward the end line that would have given Pine Lake a corner kick. Luna chased down his teammates’ kick just before it crossed the end line and booted it up the field.
Minutes later, Cox sent a through ball past the Mount Airy defense to Knauer. Knauer’s only opposition was Jesus Valadez, or so he thought. Luna came flying in from behind to execute a slide tackle that put the ball out of the Bears’ 18.
Pine Lake (19-2-1) continued its attacks until around minute 20. Jesus Valadez managed to save a number of free kicks and allowed the teams to switch roles. It was Mount Airy’s Brown that attempted a number of free kicks within 30 yards of the Pride’s goal, putting the pressure on his opponent and allowing his keeper to breathe.
While the Pride led the corner kick category 4-1 in the first half, the tables turned as Mount Airy led by the same margin in the second. Bryan Valadez and Julio Contreras’ corners not only kept the ball away from their own goal, but took time off the clock.
Mount Airy went on the defensive for the game’s final minutes. Pine Lake pressed everyone but the keeper at one point in the second half. This allowed Brown to clear the ball to Austin Tumbarello to chip away at the clock.
The clock continued to count until the final whistle signified that the Bears’ season would continue beyond that night.
In the regional finals for only the second time ever, Mount Airy will travel to Kernersville to face a familiar foe in Bishop McGuinness, who defeated Starmount 2-1 on Saturday.
The Bears (23-1-1) and Villains (17-2-3) split their earlier meetings, proving that the third time truly will be the charm for one of these teams. Except now, the stakes are higher than ever, with a trip to the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 1A Championship on the line.