GREENSBORO — It had to be one of the most heart-stopping finishes ever seen in a Powerade State Games of North Carolina men’s soccer tournament.
With the final seconds of the gold-medal match ticking away, Mason Powell of the Northwest team broke free from two defenders and went in pursuit of a free ball in front of the Central goal, with no one other than keeper Nicholas Ramirez standing between him and a game-tying goal. With one second left, both players arrived at the ball at the same time, and Ramirez snatched the ball away before Powell could take a shot.
On that note, the tournament ended with Mount Airy head coach Will Hurley’s Midwest settling for a silver medal in the two-day showcase, the second time in six years that he and his team had placed second in the State Games.
“I thought we were going to tie it up,” Hurley said. “It was very close. Their keeper just got there first. Just one step later, and we score that goal, and we go to overtime.
“It was exciting, though. This is the best our kids have ever done in this tournament. I’m really proud of them for how they played. This was a tough day, 95-degree weather, and they hung in there.”
Hurley’s State Games team, which included two of his Granite Bears players in brothers Austin and Jackson Tumbarello, son and assistant coach Holden Hurley, and Nolan McMillen of Surry Central along with 17 other players, had been the best team in the tournament during pool play. After two one-goal wins on Saturday against the West (1-0) and Southeast (2-1), the Midwest team came out on Sunday morning for the final match of pool play and clobbered the Northeast team 9-0 for a perfect 3-0 mark in pool play. Powell and Brandon Linares (Bishop McGuinness) each scored twice in that victory, and Jorge Alfaro (Burlington Williams) had a hat trick.
The Midwest only needed a draw in the first match at the UNC-Greensboro soccer complex on Sunday, and the same was true for Central, the region that represents the Raleigh-Durham area and a corridor directly south all the way to the South Carolina border. Central almost always fields one of the strongest teams in the tournament, and it won its first two matches on Saturday by a composite score of 12-3. Also needing just a draw on Sunday morning to play for gold, it tied the Southeast 1-1 in a match where the latter team only needed the draw to secure a spot in the bronze-medal match.
So the last game of the tournament came down to the Triad against the Triangle, but the Midwest had its work cut out for it. During the course of the day, Alfaro (Burlington Williams) and brothers Alan and Brandon Linares (both from Bishop) had gotten banged up. The loss of Alfaro hurt the most, as he had scored all of the Midwest’s goals on Saturday. If the Midwest was going to win the gold, it would have to rely on its defense.
“Jorge had torn a muscle in his leg,” said Hurley. “He played for as long as he could and even scored a goal for us, but told me it was killing him, and I had to take him out. Alan had a concussion and I couldn’t play him.
“We played well, and we had some chances and looks, but I think we might have won that match if we hadn’t had those three kids hurt. We had a lot of people playing out of position.”
Central put the Midwest defense to the test right away, with Hunter Lee (Cleveland) and Evan McIntyre (Durham School of the Arts) making several early runs at the goal. In the eighth minute, Lee, who scored 47 goals for a team that reached the third round of the 3A state playoffs last fall, angled a shot from left to inside the top right post and just past the fingertips of Midwest keeper James Simon (Bartlett-Yancey).
Hurley countered this by putting Jackson Tumbarello into the defensive alignment at fullback, and this did a lot to slow down Lee, who had run wild in the early going. The match settled down, and before long, the Midwest started to possess the ball better and got several entry passes into the Central goal area, but were unable to make a connection for a quality shot on goal.
In the 31st minute, Austin Tumbarello, who had scored a goal in Sunday’s first match, had a run down the middle that Central had to stop by kicking the ball out of bounds. On the ensuing throw-in, the Midwest got the ball into the goal box and drew a foul, resulting in a penalty kick assessed to Central. Alfaro put it inside the left post past Ramirez and tied the match, but played little more afterwards.
The Midwest caught a break when Central’s Julio Garcia (Raleigh Athens Drive) just missed a header off a comer kick early in the 38th minute, but the Triangle area team caught one of its own in the final seconds. Central had a run up the far sideline, and one of the Midwest fullbacks, just trying to run time off the clock, kicked the ball out of bounds. It took more than a minute to get a new ball into play, forcing the referee to stop the clock. When play did resume, the official mistakenly awarded Central a free kick, instead of a throw-in. The kick went into a melee in front of the Midwest goal with eight players involved, and one of the Central players managed to meet the ball and knock it into the net with 1.2 seconds left on the clock.
In the second half, the Midwest had chances to tie the score and Central had its chances to put it away, but neither was able to capitalize. The Midwest’s best chance was likely in the 59th minute, when they got back-to-back shots on goal against Ramirez, both of which resulted in a rebound, and one of which was an outstanding save. However, on the second rebound, one of the Central fullbacks beat the Midwest attackers to the ball and cleared it. The Midwest kept attacking, and in the 61st minute, Austin Tumbarello made a perfect centering pass into the front of the net, but his strikers couldn’t get past the Central fullbacks to meet the ball.
Dennis Andino (Clayton), a friend of a few of the Midwest players, nearly gave Central a two-goal lead in the 66th minute, but Simon made an outstanding save from 18 yards out to deny him. Three minutes later, Austin Tumbarello nearly tied it, getting a header that just missed catching the top left corner of the net.
In the final 10 minutes, the Midwest clearly had fresher legs on the field, and at the start of the 72nd minute, coaches Hurley and assistant John Blake (Ledford) decided to push everyone forward on offense in an effort to tie the match, reasoning that if it cost them a goal, it didn’t matter if they lost 2-1 or 3-1.
Down the stretch, the Midwest got a few more runs at Central, and the latter’s Hunter Baker (Corinth Holders) had a run at Simon in the 77th minute, which he made an impressive save on and then pumped his fist as he tossed the ball out to his fullbacks. The Midwest went back on the attack, and Jackson Tumbarello put a ball over the net with 55 seconds left. On the ensuing goal kick, the Midwest won possession, and with 12 seconds left, made a last-ditch move on the goal with two players. Powell (Greensboro Page) ended up against Ramirez in the final second — and the latter won the race to the free ball.
Austin Tumbarello ended his State Games career with his third medal, a silver to go along with the bronzes he won in 2016 and 2017. He scored at least one goal in every tournament. Jackson Tumbarello, who earned his second medal, and McMillen, who claimed his first, are eligible to play again next season.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.