By Taylor Welsh. November 1, 2017. BOONE, NC — In the first 30 seconds of the overtime thriller between Watauga and A. L. Brown, Pioneer captain Sam Crabbe capitalized on a save that ricocheted off the Wonders’ goalkeeper and guided the game-winning goal into an open net — and sent the Pioneers to the second round of the North Carolina 3A State Championship Tournament.
COVER IMAGE: Sam Crabbe celebrates after slotting game winner in overtime. All photographic images by Taylor Welsh for Blowing Rock News.
But Wednesday night’s match didn’t start out well for Watauga.
After successfully maintaining possession throughout the initial minutes, a failed clearance by the Watauga defense proved a gift for the Wonders’ Brandon Sanchez, who scored in the 6th minute in blasting a shot in the top shelf of the goal to give A. L. Brown a 1-0 lead — and putting Watauga in a bind early on.
“It was very difficult to go down knowing they didn’t earn it and then we had to fight out of a hole,” Watauga Head Coach Josh Honeycutt said. “I told the guys at halftime that they aren’t doing anything we can’t stop, and they aren’t doing anything that can stop us when we are efficient. So I knew we had it in us; I knew we had the ability to possess, combine and create opportunities to win this game.”
Not only did Watauga possess, combine and create, but they stood their ground defensively, allowing A. L. Brown only five scoring opportunities in the box throughout the entire game. Of those, Pioneer goalkeeper Holden Hartzog made four spectacular saves, keeping his team in the game.
In the 25th minute, A. L. Brown’s Gustavo Herrera had a golden opportunity to finish a header five yards out, but Hartzog showed off his quick hand-eye coordination, swiping the ball at point-blank range to deny the Wonders a second goal.
“I saw the ball come in and come off his head. Once that happened, I just dialed in to make the save,” Hartzog said after the game, describing his breathtaking one-hand save.
We didn’t get lucky getting into the playoffs. We earned it.
Minutes later, Wonders’ playmaker Alex Ramierz nutmegged multiple Watauga defenders and served a lob pass to teammate Axel Martinez, who headed the ball just inches wide of the left post.
Following this play, the Pioneer defensive line found a source of energy, sprinting, denying and shutting down all of A. L. Brown’s passing alleys for the rest of the first half. They battled all the way to the final seconds to go into intermission still trailing 1-0.
In a turn of momentum, Watauga came out of the locker room with high pressure on the A. L. Brown defense, catching them off guard.
He was right.
Watauga continuously and quickly moved the ball around the field in the second half. By the 50th minute, it had paid off.
Pioneer forward Gabe Highfield used his elite speed to panic a Wonder defender after the Watagua defense cleared the ball into the final third of the Wonders’ side of the field. Once Highfield stole the ball from an A. L. Brown defender, he slotted the ball around the goalkeeper to teammate and Watauga leading scorer Simon Aycock, who tapped in the equalizer, his 17th goal of the year.
Watauga began taking over the game at this point, creating opportunities out of the back and applying constant pressure up front.
Seven minutes later, Highfield curled a shot 12 yards out past the Wonders’ goalkeeper, but a shadowing defender made a goal line save to keep the score level at 1-1 with less than 20 minutes remaining.
On the other side of the field, Watauga’s Hartzog once again made an acrobatic save against Wonders’ forward Martinez, sending a driven chip over the crossbar even while falling back into the net to preserve the tie and send the game into overtime.
I wanted the crowd to know that I have ice in my veins.
“There are very few teams in the state that work as hard as we do on conditioning. That paid off during tonight’s overtime game,” Honeycutt said. “The longer the game goes, we have an advantage, in my opinion. I told them to keep pressuring hard because they were getting tired and that pressure paid off in the first seconds of overtime.”
After Highfield directed a rocket of a shot on goal, teammate Crabbe crashed the far post, finishing 15 yards out, pointing to his vein during his celebration.
“I wanted the crowd to know that I have ice in my veins,” Crabbe said, describing his game-deciding overtime goal.
Honeycutt added after winning the first round match against A. L. Brown, “After last season, no one expected us to do anything, and I told the guys from the start; we need to have a great regular season — and we had a great regular season. We need to have a great conference record — and we have a great conference record, I told them heading into the playoffs that we are not a one-and-done team. We didn’t get lucky getting into the playoffs, we earned it.”
No. 12 Watauga will gear up next for the second round, travelling to Asheboro where they will play No. 5-seeded Southwestern Randolph. Southwestern Randolph defeated West Henderson 5-3 Wednesday night in their first round bout.
“We know we have a huge match-up against the Cougars at their place, so we just have to give everything we’ve got. That’s the great thing about this team, we have great chemistry and we just fight ‘til the end,” Crabbe said.
Watauga will play Southwest Randolph in Asheboro at 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4.
Story and photographic images edited by David Rogers