Two years ago, Newton-Conover’s boys’ soccer team went to the state AA semifinals, and although the team fell in overtime to Cuthbertson, it was full of underclassmen, many of them sophomores.
Head coach Angelo Palozzi felt the group was destined for great things.
Last year’s season ended in the round of 16 for the Red Devils, but 2014 was different. This year’s team went 26-1, including winning its last 24 straight, and defeated First Flight 2-0 in the AA title game Nov. 15.
The team was balanced on both offense and defense: with an average of 3.7 goals per game offensively. The team was led by the Southern District 7 Atlantic AA Conference Offensive Player of the Year, senior Alan Esperilla, who scored 31 goals and added 32 assists.
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“Alan is just so smart and talented with the ball,” Palozzi said. “He’s actually only been playing competitively since his sophomore season, but you could tell watching him that he could be something special.”
Defensively, the team allowed .55 goals per game, but that doesn’t even tell the stinginess of the Red Devils. After a 5-4 victory over East Lincoln on Sept. 8, Newton-Conover gave up seven goals in its final 19 games, an average of .36.
Senior Greyson Frye was the anchor of the defense, playing center back and was named the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. Frye was a spark to the offense as well, scoring 15 goals and adding 11 assists for the season. One of his 15 goals came as the team’s second in the title-winning game against First Flight.
It was a senior-laden group, with 12 on the squad, but Palozzi also had six freshmen or sophomores in the starting lineup, some over seniors who had started in the past.
“This was the deepest team I’d coached,” Palozzi said. “We could go six deep on the bench and still be just fine, but this was also an unselfish group. The kids all accepted their roles and knew it was all about the team. That’s a big reason for our success.”
There was also motivation off the field, as the team had dedicated its season to Newton-Conover teacher, counselor and assistant girls’ basketball coach Maggie Daniels, who was killed June 28. Daniels was the school district Teacher of the Year in 2011 and 2013, and Palozzi said she came to nearly all the Red Devils’ athletic events.
The team had her initials on their warmups and wristbands, and after all the celebrations and pictures were taken from the title game, there was one more picture the boys took. This one had them holding two posters that read “This one was for you, Maggie Daniels.”
“She was just very special, and the boys wanted to make sure they honored her the right way,” Palozzi said. “Like I said, they’re all just great kids, and I love that they were able to bring home a state title. They deserved it.”