‘I’m so happy’: 5 years after school’s best finish, Wolves are semifinals bound

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CARY — In 2017, a scrappy, high-scoring women’s soccer team from Chapel Hill was on a quest to shock the state.

That year, the Woods Charter Wolves — led by the NCHSAA leader in career goals scored, Isabel Pearce — were 6-4-1 on April 17 with six regular-season games left on the schedule.

They finished the season at 16-5-1, having rattled off 10 straight wins, including seven shut outs, to make the program’s first-ever state semifinals appearance as a No. 10 seed.

Prior to falling to top-seeded Franklin Academy, 3-0, in the East Regional, the Wolves had posted a clean sheet in every game that postseason, winning all four playoff matches by a combined score of 26-0.

“You think of this little high school that has like 200 or so students and you think of all the 1A schools in North Carolina and how we were in the top four of all of those schools,” Pearce told the News + Record last year, reminiscing on her time with the Wolves for who she’s now an assistant coach. “It was really nice to see all of my teammates be super happy just to make it that far, especially with a limited amount of players.”

Five years later, the Wolves find themselves in a similar position: deep in the postseason, posting shut out after shut out, with one game standing in between them and a state title berth.

And it still hasn’t sunk in.

“I’m so happy about it because I’ve always wanted to go — and, hopefully, we do — to the state finals,” Leyla Noronha, the Wolves’ leading scorer, said after their win over Perquimans in the 1A state quarterfinals last Thursday. “And I’ve been just thinking about how (Isabel) Pearce went to the semifinals and they were the first team in (school) history to do it. Nobody else had done that, but now we’re doing it, so I’m just super, super excited.”

Noronha was one of five Wolves to put the ball into the net in No. 1 Woods Charter’s 6-0 blowout win over the No. 4 Perquimans Pirates at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary last Thursday.

Having not scored in the Wolves’ third-round win over the No. 8 Voyager Academy Vikings on May 23, she said she was determined to get back on the board against the Pirates — and she did, with the help of a little motivation from her coaches.

“I made a bet with one of the coaches, because my left foot’s not my strongest,” Noronha said, smiling. “But then I scored with my left, I slotted it to the corner, so every time I score with my left foot, it feels really good. … I kind of loved it.”

Woods Charter’s 6-goal victory punched the team’s second-ever ticket to the state semifinals, where it’ll face the No. 7 Hobbton Wildcats (19-1-2) back at WakeMed Soccer Park on Tuesday evening (after the News + Record goes to press).

While its season has had a much different feel than it did in 2017 — with this year’s squad rolling through the regular season with an unbeaten record to claim the program’s first No. 1 seed — the similarities remain, namely in its defensive genius.

Through three games this postseason, Woods Charter has outscored its opponents by a combined 15-0 score, thriving in the business of limiting offensive opportunities and keeping them away from the net entirely.

In those three contests, totaling 240 minutes of game time, the Wolves have allowed just four shots on goal, including two shots against the Pirates.

Woods Charter’s mindset: you can’t score if you can’t shoot.

“We dominated possession,” Graeme Stewart, the Wolves’ longtime head coach, said after the fourth-round victory. “I think they maybe had two shots (tonight), but positionally, they didn’t have much at all. That’s because we were working so hard off the ball and our shape was good.”

At this point, Stewart and the Wolves have become somewhat of a broken record.

In every game this postseason, Woods Charter has been consistent in doing just that: dominating possession, winning nearly every 50-50 ball and pelting its opponent’s goalkeeper with shots until they finally start falling.

It’s like clockwork.

“We’ve got good momentum and the girls love being with each other,” Stewart said. “We’re a decent team right now. The girls are confident and they’re playing for each other. And that’s one of the things we’ve talked about, ‘You play for yourself and you play for each other.’ Everything’s positive, there’s no negative, no blame. And we just work. Talent plus hard work, that’s what we do.”

The Pirates (10-5-2), despite their hard-fought run to the state quarterfinals, weren’t built for a team like the Wolves.

In total, Perquimans brought just 14 players on its 158-mile trip from Hertford to Cary, allowing for very few substitutions for rest and injuries. And it showed.

All game long, Woods Charter did its best to simply wear Perquimans out, battling for every loose ball, refusing to give up open passing lanes and meeting the Pirates at the point of attack.

More importantly, though, the Wolves flourished in doing one thing the Pirates couldn’t: moving the ball.

It didn’t matter which of Woods Charter’s star players had the ball, they were almost always looking for the chance to dump it off for a better shot elsewhere.

“I think it really just starts with knowing how to move the ball, we know how to move it back and forth really well,” Caroline Mitchell, the Wolves’ sophomore midfielder, said after the win. “I think we know how to switch fields really well, too, and that throws them off each time.”

Early in the first half, the Wolves made a point to spread the ball out wide, typically sending it to the right side of the pitch as they brought the ball up. There, sophomore Cate Czyzewski was usually waiting for the pass so she could sprint toward the corner, search for a crossing pass opportunity and set up a potential goal.

WakeMed’s Field No. 2 — host of the Pirates-Wolves matchup, acting as Woods Charter’s home field — is FIFA international regulation size (120 yards by 75 yards), much wider than many schools, including Woods Charter, are used to.

The field’s size allowed the Wolves to play their game, using their conditioning and sharp passing ability to their advantage as the Pirates struggled to keep up.

“You can play as wide as you can on our home field (in Chapel Hill), but it’s not this, so the first 15-20 minutes, we had to get used to it,” Stewart said. “The angles are different, the spacing is different. … (Getting the ball outside) is what you should be doing on any field if you can do it, but on a big field like this, you have to do that.

“You need to move them around, you need to test their shape,” he added. “If they don’t move, then that’s where the space is. If they do, then they’ve got to be fit enough to do it for 80 minutes. … What we’ve worked on in practice is exactly that, using the width. And you could see that today.”

As special as the Wolves’ defense has been this season, it’s offense continues to click at an otherworldly level.

In each game this postseason, Woods Charter has had a different leading scorer, including Noronha (3 goals; hat trick) in the second round and junior Chloe Richard (3 goals; hat trick) in the third round.

But last Thursday, Mitchell posted her first multi-goal game since April 26 with a 2-goal performance against the Pirates, scoring both in the game’s first 30 minutes.

She opened the scoring in the 20th minute when — after the Wolves had been peppering shots near the Pirates’ goal for much of the first half — junior Lucy Miller delivered a textbook leading pass to Mitchell toward the left side of the goal, who went one-on-one with the goalkeeper and slotted an undeterred shot directly into the center-left portion of the net for the 1-0 lead.

“I saw Lucy coming with the ball and it was just an absolutely great pass,” Mitchell explained with a laugh. “And I just shot it from there.”

Then, 10 minutes later, Mitchell was in position again when the ball ricocheted off of Pirates freshman goalkeeper Mariah Clark, who dove for the save, and landed right in front of her, allowing Mitchell to tap it in for her second goal of the night.

With the Wolves nursing a 2-0 advantage and plenty of confidence, they scored again in the 35th minute when sophomore Taylor Young knocked it into the net on another rebound chance for her third goal of the season.

“We work a lot on finishing and it’s not just about one player when you’re playing against us,” Stewart said. “You’ve got to earn the right against all of our players. … We’ve got that good balance.”

In the 52nd minute, the Wolves were awarded a corner kick to the right side in which, after being inbounded by Richard, the ball came soaring back to her wide open in the corner. That allowed her to reset, survey the field and send another pass flying toward Miller in the penalty area, which she belted into net’s left corner to give Woods Charter a 4-0 lead with 28 minutes to play.

The final two goals would come from Wolves junior Megan Nowak — who scored on a penalty kick following a foul on the Pirates that knocked Mitchell to the ground — in the 59th minute and Noronha’s left-footed knock in the 65th minute that sealed the 6-goal victory.

If it makes it to the title game on Saturday, Woods Charter’s final three games will have been played at WakeMed Soccer Park, giving them a distinct advantage against Hobbton and whichever team makes it out of the 1A West (either unbeaten No. 1 Union Academy or No. 3 Christ the King).

That’s just one more reason why the Stewart and the Wolves feel confident they can finish what the 2017 team started.

“We’re used to (this field) now, so whoever we play on Tuesday, they’ve got to get used to it, too,” Stewart said. “We’ve got great structure and the kids know what they’re trying to do, they know the plan. And they’re playing for each other. There are no cliques, there’s no nothing, they just play for each other.”

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at vhensley@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33. 


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