HILLSBORO, Mo. – Levi Spray maintained a firm grip on the Class 3, District 1 championship plaque while celebrating with his teammates near the bench, and did not want to turn loose.
Four years of hard work culminated in a joyous reality for the senior standout and a North County boys soccer program that had never competed for a district title before Thursday evening.
The Raiders received goals from Spray and freshman Nick Parker, and frustrated top seed Hillsboro with their physical presence for a 2-0 victory on the Hawks’ home field.
North County (16-6) will host Poplar Bluff (11-12-1) in a Class 3 sectional contest on Tuesday. The Mules topped Farmington 2-0 to capture their first district championship since 2000.
“The boys worked hard for this. They were excited, focused and ready to play,” North County coach Stephen Mosier said. “Both teams were deserving to be playing for first place. We fortunately came out above them this time after they beat us twice in the regular season.”
North County outshot Hillsboro 14-6 overall and committed 11 of the 16 fouls in the match. Aggression was key during a pivotal 10-minute stretch to open the second half.
The Raiders generated five consecutive shots out of intermission, and were rewarded in the 45th minute after Spray settled a ball with his chest near midfield.
His long shot skipped toward Hillsboro keeper Cole Luby and hopped away. Parker arrived and made no mistake while depositing the rebound for a huge insurance goal.
“With the rain that happened today, we knew the ball was going to skid,” Spray said. “Nick planned that run perfectly, stayed onside and buried it.”
Subsequent scoring chances for Spray and teammate Kevin Sansoucie missed the mark, and the Raiders shifted their attention to protecting the lead with time winding down.
Hillsboro botched a number of late touches with anxiety setting in. Raiders defender Cameron Harvey blocked a cross intended for midfielder Alex Brody, and Nik Kennedy missed connections on a diagonal feed from Daniel Theiss.
“We did a great job of marking tight on the players coming in,” Mosier said. “Hillsboro likes to play the ball through to their fast forwards, and we closed those spaces well.”
North County keeper McKenzy Bryan made his toughest save on a curving corner kick from senior Ryan Plastridge, punching the ball over the crossbar with about nine minutes left.
The Raiders consistently kept the ball in the offensive half from there, and happily sprinted toward the bench after a final Hillsboro shot sailed wide in the closing seconds.
“In our last game against De Soto, we were nervous, and only beat them 3-2,” Spray said. “Tonight we just decided to have fun, and that’s when we play better.”
Brody was called for the foul while colliding with Bryan on a dangerous ball in the 61st minute. Kameron Caldwell was then assessed a yellow card for protesting.
Hillsboro (12-12-2) attempted four of its six corner kicks during the first half, but could not produce a clear chance inside or near the perimeter of the box at any point.
The Raiders grabbed the lead with a sensational goal by Spray from beyond 35 yards. He took a sideline pass from Tommy Struckman near the midfield logo, settled in space and tucked a sinking drive between Luby and the crossbar in the 19th minute.
“The first goal, I didn’t even expect it,” Spray said. “It was instinctive. I just hit it, and it went in the goal. We all went nuts, and after that, I felt like we had victory in the bag.”
Caldwell dribbled brilliantly past three players about four minutes later for the Hawks. Sancousie hustled back and disrupted his progress just enough for Bryan to make a sliding cover.
North County went to battle with a somewhat young varsity lineup as freshmen Jackson Schrum, Keaton Young and Parker all played extensively.