While most teams will play their full schedules with a hope for a conference championship, the Queen City 3A/4A boys' soccer championship is likely to have a favorite after Tuesday.
That's when rivals Olympic and Charlotte Catholic – the league's top two teams over the past three years – will meet for the first time this season.
Catholic has won the teams' five meetings over the past two years, including a playoff game last year. Both teams are ranked in the 3A state poll this season.
Catholic (4-0) is ranked second, while Olympic (3-0) is third. Game time on Tuesday is 6:30 p.m.
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How Olympic emerged
Olympic's team has taken great strides since the doldrums of the first part of this decade.
Coming off another losing season in 2004, the Trojans reached the playoffs in 2005 for the first time in seven years. They won a first-round game over North Iredell but lost in the second round to Asheville.
In 2006, Olympic finished 16-5 with a first-round postseason loss to Asheville Erwin.
Coincidentally, it was in 2005 that Olympic and Catholic joined the same conference. Olympic had been reclassified from 4A. Catholic, winner of the 2A state championship in 2004, moved up.
The first time the teams met as conference rivals was Sept. 13, 2005, at Olympic. Hai Tan Le scored the Trojans' first and third goals as they won, 4-2.
The Cougars won the rematch that year, 3-1, on the way to their first of three straight Queen City 3A/4A titles. Olympic hasn't beaten Catholic since, nor has it lost to any other conference foe during that span.
In 2006, the Cougars won the teams' two conference matches by a combined score of 10-0.
The rivalry builds
The rivalry intensified last year. Each team was ranked throughout the season and eventually made a push for a state championship.
Catholic won the regular-season conference games 5-2 and 4-1, though both contests were more competitive than the final scores indicate. They met again in the fourth round of the playoffs.
Olympic led 1-0 at halftime. But as it had done in several previous meetings, Catholic rallied in the second half. The Cougars converted two headers to snatch a 2-1 victory and advance to the state semifinals.
“(Catholic) does everything well,” Olympic coach Matt Merrill said. “They have great fundamentals. They play well as a team. They communicate well.”
Balance provides hope
Despite the graduation of forward Matt Brown, who set a Mecklenburg County record with 57 goals last season, Olympic (20-5 in 2007) is touted as one of the best teams in the state.
Merrill and his players suggest that this year's squad is more balanced, and the players play well together.
Four-year starting midfielder Brian Mazhari, whose brother Michael joined him on the 2005 team and now plays at Queens University, said defending the Cougars will be important this year.
“Some of us focus more on attacking and getting the ball behind them more than defending,” he said. “If you never let a ball in, you can never lose.
“So this year, we will focus more on defending and not letting them get as many chances. If you let them have too many chances, they're bound to put one or two away.”
Senior goalkeeper Jamie Carano has a special interest in playing against the Cougars. He attended Catholic during his sophomore year and plays club soccer with many of this year's players.
“It makes me want to win more, because I know those guys and (would) have some bragging rights,” said Carano.
The rematch is scheduled for Oct. 1 at Catholic.