On paper, this had all of the makings of an upset loss for the state’s eighth-ranked 1A soccer team.
Mount Airy hosted Walkertown in its Northwest Conference opener Thursday night, playing without three starters on the defensive end. The Granite Bears fell behind 3-0 in the first half, were whistled for two penalty kicks, two yellow cards, made numerous mistakes on the defensive end, and were so upset with the officiating that Coach Will Hurley had his team play the final 34:24 of the match under protest.
But what could have been an incredibly demoralizing loss was instead Mount Airy’s finest hour this season.
“I’m really proud of my kids for battling back. Usually, when you get down 3-0 in soccer, you start hanging your heads,” said Hurley of his team’s come-from-behind 5-4 victory. “If we had played in the first half like we played in the second half, it probably wouldn’t have been like this.”
The Bears (11-3-1, 1-0 NW1A) wouldn’t let anything stand in their way in the second half. After a frustrating first half in which the team failed to score despite numerous opportunities, Mount Airy scored twice in the first 3:17 of the second half. The first came on a Matthew Dodd goal, described by his coach as a “thing of beauty,” that followed a free kick from the center line after just 83 seconds. The second came when Jesus Martinez finished off a corner kick from Christian Vernon with 36:43 remaining.
It appeared as though the Bears’ momentum might stall when Walkertown’s Kevin Patricio scored off a penalty kick two minutes later, on a debatable foul call near the Mount Airy goal. Fourteen seconds later, after another call went against his team, Hurley informed the official, who previously had ties to another Surry County school, that the Bears were playing the match under protest.
Usually, when a team plays a game under protest, they resign themselves to their fate and end up losing. But not Mount Airy. The Bears, whose Jacob Dodd and Malcolm Malone were both celebrating birthdays on Thursday, increased their resolve and kept coming after the Wolfpack.
“They kept coming,” said Hurley. “When we realized we could come back, we weren’t giving up.”
Just 44 seconds after Walkertown was gifted (in the Bears’ estimation) a free goal, Martinez got it back and the Wolfpack lead was down to 4-3.
For the next several minutes, the teams went up and down the field, with each team threatening the other’s goal, and a growing sense that whoever scored next would come away victorious. Patricio had a good shot at putting his team back up by two at 28:31, but misfired on a header. A minute later, the Bears were angered again when one of their players was taken down in front of the Walkertown goal, but nothing was called until a Mount Airy player received a yellow card seconds later.
For the next 10 minutes, nothing happened. When the Bears finally tied it, it came out of the blue on a long shot by Julio Contreras, about 35 yards in front of the goal. The ball hit off the bottom of the crossbar and caromed just inside the goal, tying the match at 4 with 17:45 to play as the Mount Airy bench cheered loudly.
Hurley, sensing victory, cajoled his team to push up aggressively on every subsequent attack. The visitors parried the Bears’ first few runs at the winning goal, but Contreras finally defeated the Walkertown defense with another long shot, this one from about 25 yards out, with 8:26 to play. For the first time all evening, Mount Airy led.
There were several tense moments in the final minutes, as the Bears drew another yellow card that they strongly disagreed with, and the Wolfpack mounted several runs at the goal. With about three minutes remaining, Hurley went completely into defensive mode and ordered leading scorer Austin Tumbarello to play back on defense, a move that paid dividends when the sophomore cleared out a ball in front of the net a minute later.
Mount Airy managed to clear the ball away from its net and even push it back into the Walkertown end, and the match ended with the Wolfpack nowhere near the Bear goal. It also ended with a standing ovation from a Mount Airy crowd who appreciated their team’s gutsy comeback.
Walkertown (4-8, 1-1 NW1A) dominated the first half. The Wolfpack nearly took the lead in the ninth minute, when it was awarded its first questionable penalty kick. However, Bear keeper Jesus Orozco guessed correctly that Jonathan Oldham would shoot to Orozco’s left, and made a diving save. Meanwhile, Tumbarello missed multiple chances near the goal to give the Bears a lead, and then to equalize after Oldham sent a ball ahead to Irvin Valentin Hernandez for a goal in the 17th minute of play.
In the 25th minute, Walkertown extended its lead to 2-0 on a goal by Noe Castro Jr., and in the 34th minute, not long after Mount Airy’s Martinez had misfired on a header at the other end, Angel Saguilan-Quiterio gave the Wolfpack a 3-0 advantage.
“We missed nine shots in the first half,” said Hurley. “We didn’t even need to make half of those and this was a tie match.”
The Bears return to action on Tuesday at home against East Surry.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.