CORNELIUS About five weeks ago, Hough High’s girls’ soccer team received an unexpected honor – and then became a big target.
The National Soccer Coaches Association of America released its second spring poll April 8 and the Huskies had climbed from No. 6 to No. 1. The team has remained there ever since.
Hough also is No. 1 in the N.C. coaches’ poll and in the Observer’s Sweet 16.
“It’s kind of like we’re everybody’s Super Bowl,” said senior goalie Marnie Merritt, a finalist for the Gatorade N.C. Player of the Year award. “It doesn’t put pressure on us, but now people are gunning for our spot, and we have to work our butts off. There are no days off. But you know what? It’s kind of a cool feeling.”
Merritt and the Huskies (19-0-2) will open the N.C. 4A playoffs at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at home against McDowell (0-13). The Huskies look to reach a third straight 4A championship game.
Ardrey Kell reached back-to-back finals in 2008 and ’09. The Knights went back to the final in 2011, but no Mecklenburg County girls’ 4A team has been to three straight.
Hough is a No. 1 seed this year after outscoring opponents 102-8. It has shut out 16 teams, led by Merritt, senior forward Courtney Carroll (24 goals, 13 assists) and sophomore forward Alex Denny (13 goals, seven assists).
Hough also has three players with eight or more goals, including senior forward Sarah Moon, the most valuable player of the 2012 state title game, who scored twice during the second half to secure a 2-1 win against Cary Green Hope – then the No. 1-ranked team in the country.
“We’ve had such a good year,” Merritt said, “but it would be icing on the cake if we did go all the way. But we’ve got to go one game at a time. Anything can happen in the playoffs.”
Hough opened in August 2010. The girls’ soccer team didn’t take long to become a power. In the spring of 2011, its first season, the Huskies reached the N.C. 4A semifinals, going 22-4-1.
In 2012, after upsetting Green Hope in the state final, Hough finished No. 2 in the national poll. In 2013, Green Hope stopped Hough in the championship round.
The Huskies are 88-7-4 all-time and working on a second unbeaten season within three years. They’ve become the team to beat in the western half of the state.
“The girls and I have tried to do a good job of keeping all that on the outside,” coach David Smith said. “It’s nice and good for the parents to see it and the people around school to talk about the success, but the big thing I try to get the girls to understand is to control what we can control.
“We can’t control national rankings. We can only control what happens in the state of North Carolina.”
Of the 23 players on the roster, nine are seniors. They are among the first group of seniors to graduate after spending all four years at the school. Five will play in college. Merritt and Carroll, the co-captains, will play at Mississippi. Moon signed with Appalachian State. Forward Nicole Duncan will play at Catawba and midfielder Nicole Ferren at Belmont Abbey.
“These seniors have set the bar extremely high,” Smith said.
But the future is bright, he said. Besides the 14 players who will return next season, Smith also will pick from a junior varsity team that was 11-1 this season.
“We’ve got some standout players on JV,” he said, “and girls on JV that would probably be playing and starting on varsity at other schools. This is motivation for them as well. We’ve got a good freshman class coming in. It’s just a huge testament to these seniors that they’ve established this and the younger kids who want to keep it going. They don’t want to be the ones to stop the party.”
Last week, Hough learned a valuable lesson, the players said.
The Huskies played three games within three days, the second of which was against N.C. power Myers Park. The Mustangs, No. 3 in the state coaches’ poll, are unbeaten against everybody else this season, but 0-2 against Hough. The Huskies won 1-0 in an emotional game to clinch the No. 1 overall playoff seed, but they had to play Concord Robinson the next night.
Robinson and Hough tied 2-2, ending the Huskies’ win streak at 19 and halting a run that included 12 straight shutouts.
“After the game,” Smith said, “we sat there and watched how they celebrated a tie.”
Carroll and Merritt stood in front of their teammates, telling them to take it all in. They reminded them that the team was not invincible. They said they didn’t want to watch another team celebrate against them this season.
“It’s kind of a wake-up call,” Merritt said. “We were tired against Robinson. We had a long week and we didn’t have a lot left in the tank. But the playoffs are starting and everything from here on out is serious, and we can be tired and we can be beaten. That showed it’s wake-up time.”
Wertz: 704-612-9716; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr
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