LENOIR — Wilkes Central went from almost not fielding a boy’s soccer team this fall to making the North Carolina High School Athletic Association playoffs.

Despite No. 2 seed Hibriten defeating the Eagles 4-0 in the first round of the 2A playoffs on Wednesday night, Wilkes Central Head Coach Jim Caudill has seen the team come a long way since the first day of fall practice back in early August.

The No. 31 Eagles started their first practice with just eight players and went 0-7 in nonconference play but Caudill knew the challenging nonconference schedule would prepare them for Mountain Valley Athletic Conference play. And it did as Wilkes Central finished third in the MVAC.

“This is the kind of teams that we played. We play quality sides, we didn’t play any easy teams; it irritates me that schools will play weaker sides just to get wins and we didn’t do that,” said Caudill. “We played strong sides so we could compete and this is where we ended up. It’s a testament to their character; they’re good kids, they’re hard workers.”

The Eagles (10-12) quickly found themselves behind 1-0 after Gerardo Rodriguez’s goal in the second minute.

But for a majority of the first half, Wilkes Central kept a potent Panthers offense — one that entered Wednesday’s match with 107 goals (to just 22 allowed) — at bay. The lone exception was Kevin Rios’ score in the 20th minute.

“That took a little bit out of our sails. The boys believed in themselves because of the season that we’ve had, they’ve done a tremendous job,” Caudill said about the first goal. “They’re not number two just for somebody to put them at number two; they’re a good squad, they’re deep.

“Tonight, they were even missing their top guy (David Franquiz, who had a team-high 24 goals and 21 assists this fall) and (Hibriten Head Coach Jim Blanton) is a great coach; he’ll set them up to be successful,” added Caudill. “I would not be surprised to see them in the final game.”

Despite not having the services of Franquiz, Rios notched a hat trick for Hibriten, which hasn’t lost since its season opener to Hickory (a 24-match unbeaten streak).

The sophomore was awarded a penalty kick in the 39th minute after a hand ball by Central in the 18-yard box. Rios converted on the shot but it was waved off due to an encroachment violation.

Rios was forced to retake the PK, and once again, bested Central goalkeeper Roman O’Sullivan to give Hibriten (22-1-2) a  3-0  halftime lead.

The Panthers had a considerable advantage in shots at 32-6 (24-3 in shots on goal) but O’Sullivan kept the Eagles in the match with 20 stops.

“Roman was big for us. The first thing that happens tonight is he gets into a big collision down there and there’s no call. A lot of keepers would have shied away from that, but he got stuck right back in and made some big stops,” said Caudill. “He’s a sophomore so there’s a lot of success that we should be seeing from him in the future.”

Central’s best opportunity to avoid the shutout early on came in the 40th minute as Brandon Lope’z shot on goal just missed.

 Tradin Allen had the Eagles’ best scoring opportunity in the second half but Mack Waters, Hibriten’s keeper, stopped the senior’s shot in the 71st minute.

“They’re much more skilled, much more talented than we are but we battled and that’s all I can say I cared about. I told the kids that when we walked off the pitch, make sure you’ve done everything you can to make us be successful,” said Caudill. “I couldn’t be prouder of the four captains (Allen, Lopez, Bram Koch and Bryan Francis). They’ve put up with the younger kids and the mistakes. Sometimes that gets very frustrating, but they played through it and we found success.”

Notes: Hibriten’s season continues on Saturday against fellow Caldwell County and Northwestern Foothills Conference foe West Caldwell. The No. 15 Warriors defeated No. 18 Lincolnton 3-1. In addition to the Eagles, No. 7 Ashe County fell 2-1 to No. 26 Carver in the 2A playoffs on Wednesday. Number 24 Elkin lost 3-0 in the 1A playoffs at No. 9 Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy. Starmount garnered the No. 6 seed in the 1A playoffs and received a first-round bye. The Rams will host No. 11 Bishop McGuinness on Saturday.

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