Fans are used to filling the bleachers at Mount Airy High to see the Bears football team compete under Friday night lights. Except this time, the ball was a different shape, players wore a lot less padding, and the players’ use of hands was almost nonexistent.
Mount Airy hosted rival East Surry in a rare edition of Friday soccer. The Bears and Cardinals battled to a scoreless standstill for more than an hour, but when the final whistle blew, it was Mount Airy that emerged victorious, 2-0.
The Cardinals (5-4-2, 0-2) came into Friday’s match without their full roster. Nonetheless, East coach Neal Oliver prepared for a defensive battle that did contain Mount Airy for most of the match.
“The attitude coming in was we wanted to be very close at halftime,” Oliver said. “We wanted it to be a tie game with no score and then bust out something in the second half. We had some opportunities, but we just didn’t connect with our passes enough up front.”
An offensive juggernaut, Mount Airy (11-1, 2-0) has scored 63 goals this season and only allowed six. To contend with the Bears’ attacking corps, Oliver emphasized a defensive mentality that created quick offense through counterattacks.
The plan worked to perfection in the first half. Just as the team did earlier in the season as part of a 1-1 draw with Surry Central, East’s methodical,”bend, don’t break,” strategy frustrated the fast-paced Granite Bears.
“I think we might have been pressing a little too hard and weren’t relaxed enough,” said Bears coach Will Hurley. “Take nothing away from East Surry, they play defense really, really well. I thought they played exceptionally hard.”
At times, the Cardinals would have nine players on defense and just two on offense. Brady Jessup and Juan Ramirez would rotate as striker and attacking midfielder for East Surry, with the rest of the team focused on containment.
Austin Tumbarello, the Bears’ leading scorer, didn’t get a lot of room to operate on East Surry’s half. As soon as Austin or Liam Overby entered the Cardinals’ third, two or three defenders flocked to the opposing player with possession.
Austin and brother Jackson Tumbarello began taking longer shots, but had no luck getting past Cardinal keeper Ethan Casstevens. JJ Lachino and Bryan Valadez patrolled the midfield for Mount Airy to keep constant pressure on East Surry.
In addition to Casstevens, Oliver praised East’s back four of Cade Williams, Seth Lowe, Jacob Lowe, and Gonzalo Chavez for their work in containing Mount Airy’s attackers. Chris Osario, Leo De la Cruz, and Nick Lowery also rotated in as defensive midfielders to keep fresh legs back.
Osario and Oscar Duran started a counterattack at 20’ that changed momentum in the favor of East. The duo made a run up the left side that resulted in a shot from Ramirez. The Cards kept the ball on the Bears’ half for a rare span of offense.
The last five minutes of the first half saw Mount Airy go on an all-out offensive assault. Both Tumbarellos, Overby, Lachino, and Brandon Osorno fired shots at the Cardinal goal in this span, but none fell as the teams went into halftime 0-0.
Mount Airy began the second half with a number of free kicks on the Cardinals’ side of the field. East’s physicality showed their defensive mindset that focused on slowing the game down to their pace. The Cards did take a few stabs on offense when Jackson Tumbarello would push up, but Christian Vernon and Chris Cogdill covered for their teammate. Even when Jackson was sidelined due to a yellow card, the Bears’ defense didn’t cave.
Everything seemed to go according to East Surry’s plan, as the Bears only had four shots in the first 28 minutes of the second half. The momentum soon shifted, however, when Mount Airy earned a penalty kick at 69’.
Valadez found the back of the net to finally break the ice. The goal not only put the Bears ahead, but it opened the floodgates for Mount Airy.
“I knew once we scored one goal, we’d score another one,” Hurley said. “I told the kids that at halftime, I said ‘just score one and then the rest will come.’”
Sure enough, more did come. Mount Airy doubled its shot count in the three minutes after the first goal. It all led up to a goal from Austin Tumbarello at 72’.
“You could see the deflation, and that’s the main reason the second goal was scored,” Oliver said. “They were down a little bit and didn’t pick back up.”
East Surry had one final chance when Phillip Brantley broke through the Bears‘ defense. Brantley went one-on-one with keeper Jesus Valadez, but his shot soared just wide of the post. Time expired soon after as the Bears won their second conference match.
“It was pretty ugly, but we did it,” Hurley said. “A win’s a win. Sometimes, good teams find a way to win ugly games like that. We’ve just got to practice finishing.”
Oliver saw the Cardinals true potential Friday night despite the loss. The road doesn’t get any easier as East Surry continues conference play next week against the defending 1A State Champions, Bishop McGuinness (12-2-1).
“I feel like we can play with anybody if we put our full effort out and they did that tonight, ” Oliver said. “Several times, we were one or two passes away from making a good attack on the goal. [Moving forward], we have to play with that kind of effort.”
The Granite Bears begin a four-game road trip on Monday against county foe North Surry (6-3-1) before facing Bishop McGuinness on Thursday.
Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith