FARMINGTON – The North County boys soccer team was staring at a perplexing deficit before it could even settle into formation on Monday night.
Class 3, District 1 top seed Cape Central struck just 14 seconds into the championship match on a steal of the opening kickoff, forcing the Raiders into an immediate test of resolve.
North County would remain composed, however, and did enough to impede the Tigers’ advantage in speed and claim its fifth district crown over the last six years.
Senior Grant Strauser netted the equalizer on a penalty kick, and sophomore Landon Proffer added the controversial go-ahead goal as the Raiders prevailed 2-1 on neutral turf in Farmington.
Junior keeper Shelby Lee made a couple of crucial saves in the second half for North County (15-7), which will host either Hillsboro or Windsor in the state sectional round on Tuesday.
“This is kind of my everything right now,” said Strauser, who accepted the first-place plaque as team captain. “I played a lot of club ball in other years, but high school is crunch time for me. The guys look up to me, and that really means something.”
The Raiders were unofficially outshot 11-7, but applied pressure to earn consecutive sideline throws, the second of which caromed off a Cape Central defender for a corner.
Brandt Vickers chased down the ensuing ball in the 45th minute, and sent a return cross toward the box that was headed away from the goal mouth.
Bryan Basinger alertly charged forward for a one-touch strike just beyond the edge of the box, and the shot was batted down as defender Yuxiang Zhong instinctively raised his hands.
Strauser calmly planted the PK just inside the left post. His team-high 18th goal squared the match at 1-1 and rejuvenated a North County squad that had struggled to generate scoring chances.
“Our goal tonight was to get the ball out wide to Landon Kater, but their left back did a really good job against him,” North County head coach Robert O’Keefe said. “We were all over the place tonight with people in new positions, but found a way.”
Cape Central (15-6-1) nearly regained the lead 20 seconds later as Logan Mizicko delivered a perfect diagonal ball from the right sideline toward a streaking Kaya Newkirk.
The senior forward had a clean look at a potential second goal from 15 yards after shrugging off fallen defender Musse Dunlap, but Lee denied his rising drive with a leaping punch over the bar.
Although the Tigers were mostly relegated to working the sidelines, they gradually progressed deeper into North County territory during a subsequent three-minute stretch.
But an eventual corner yielded nothing substantial, and the Raiders would surge ahead when a careless clear in open space gave them an opportunity to organize.
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Basinger released a sideline throw that Kater flicked with a backward header toward a cluster of players in the box. The bouncing ball found the foot of Proffer for a go-ahead tally with 20:50 remaining.
Cape Central players vehemently appealed to officials for a handball to no avail, and their dismay would manifest into reckless fouls down the stretch.
Proffer was the second sophomore to score this week for the Raiders. Peyton Cheek provided the tying header off a free kick during the semifinal match against Farmington.
“It’s unbelievable how those two stepped up as sophomores. They have a bright future,” O’Keefe said. “We had to take Grant Strauser out of the midfield, and he’s our playmaker. So for two people to step up like that is a really positive sign for the team.”
Two of the Tigers’ best offensive threats were later shown yellow cards and briefly forced off after Trece Ayers tripped Jon Redding from behind and Nathaniel Albertson argued a separate call.
Between those incidents, Albertson launched a stellar midair pass from his side of midfield that sprang Ayers down the right side, but his low shot zipped past the far post in the 65th minute.
North County withstood one last threat when Newkirk received a quick counter pass off a turnover. Lee leaned left to preserve the fragile lead with less than five minutes on the clock.
Cape Central committed 17 fouls in defeat compared to 12 against North County, and had a 3-2 edge in corner kicks. A scheduled preview clash was canceled last week due to inclement weather.
“We were ready for their speed. I think we collectively had a good effort,” O’Keefe said. “Unfortunately, we gave them the first goal, which I was shocked by.
“It was our kickoff, and we made a mistake in the back line. Other than that, having Grant control that back line and playing sweeper was out of this world for us tonight.”
The Tigers could not have asked for a better start after intercepting first forward kick of the contest. An Ayers cross on the counter was tapped home by Newkirk at the vacant back post.
North County kept them off the scoreboard from there. Mizicko had a rare chip from straight away, but the fluttering shot was easily handled by Lee in the 26th minute.
“We were not expecting a hot press in the beginning, but we slowly began to drop back and made sure we were getting everything cleared without a bounce since the field was wet,” Strauser said. “It was a little difficult for us to adjust to, but I think we did pretty well.”
Alex Powderly made two saves for Cape Central, which dodged two dangerous shots from Kater within the first 10 minutes before stifling the Raiders for the remainder of the first half.