Last year, Hough High’s boys’ soccer team made it all the way to the semifinals of the N.C. public-school playoffs.
Huskies coach David Smith had a feeling that the 2014 squad could turn out even better, despite losing the top player from 2013.
Hough’s players are proving Smith’s hunch right.
The Huskies (18-3-1) clinched their third consecutive conference title (second straight in the MECKA 4A) and extended their regular-season league winning streak to 32 games, dating back to the final four games of the 2012 season.
“From the summer to now, they’ve exceeded my expectations at this point,” Smith said. “We had a lot of unknowns coming in. But I’m proud of how the guys have stepped up. It’s come from all the grades.”
Hough – currently ranked 10th in the state among 4A teams in the latest N.C. Soccer Coaches Association poll – lost 11 seniors from last year's team, which finished 22-6 after losing to Asheville’s T.C. Roberson in the 4A Western Regional final.
Tops among them were two NCSCA all-state selections: forward Michael Basnett, the Huskies’ leading scorer the past three seasons, and defender Adrian Rinde.
Basnett – now playing at Catawba – and then-junior forward C.J. Bradley accounted for all but 19 of Hough’s goals during the 2013 season. Basnett led with 27 goals (as well as a team-best 16 assists) while Bradley added 23 goals and 12 assists.
“He and C.J. had such a great partnership up top,” Smith said. “I knew what to expect from C.J., but I was worrying about whether teams would be able to focus on him, or will other guys step up?”
As it turned out, a lot of guys stepped up. The Huskies have scored a school-record 92 goals so far this season.
While Bradley leads the team in both goals (23) and assists (16), freshman A.J. Whisenant is second with 22 goals. Furthermore, Hough’s goal scoring is more spread out. Eighteen players have scored at least one goal and 19 have at least one assist, compared to 13 and 15, respectively, last year.
“It’s helped create more space for me up top, which is huge,” said Bradley, also an NCSCA all-state pick last year. “Having the wingers and midfielders we have that can support us and score goals, it just gives the other team’s defense that much more to worry about.”
Said Smith: “Getting the contributions from A.J. have been a great surprise. But the whole team has been a surprise. We’ve gotten a lot more contributions from guys, and made things a lot harder for opposing defenses.”
The biggest improvement may be with the Huskies’ defense.
Led by senior goalkeeper Bryce Deeringer, Hough has gone from allowing 48 goals with eight shutouts last season, to 18 goals allowed with 11 shutouts this year. That doesn’t include an early-season scoreless tie with Garinger, ranked fifth in the NCSCA 4A state poll.
“I’ve been coming off the line a little bit more,” said Deeringer, who also splits time with the Huskies’ football team as its punter. “I’ve been going after balls I can get to instead of sitting on the line and letting (opponents) get off a shot. We’ve also been talking more in the back, and working the ball around more so we can get it upfield.”
Said Smith of Deeringer: “He’s had a huge year. He’s made some big plays for us. He’s been very solid, he’s cut down on his mistakes. He worked hard in the summer and the preseason to be more focused during the games.
“I’ve been pleased with (the defense) – it’s probably been the biggest surprise. We’ve had some guys in the back who have stepped up, guys who I thought wouldn’t have started, and they’ve come up huge for us.”
That success has Hough’s players feeling confident heading into the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A playoffs, which begin Oct. 29.
“Last year, we shocked a few people by going that far in the playoffs,” Bradley said. “But over the summer workouts, I knew we were going to be a better team than we were last year. Since our defense has improved so tremendously, I think we can get over that hump this year.”
Said Deeringer: “Win or go home, that’s always been my mindset. If we can get past all the little stuff, then we can make a run for the state (title). This team has the quality to do it.”