The state championship game had been the setting for bittersweet endings for too many Chapel Hill boys’ soccer teams. The Tigers, among the most tradition-rich high school programs in the state, hadn’t won the N.C. High School Athletic Association title since 1983 and had lost four times in the state final since 1976, including last year.
Then came Saturday.
No more bitter, just sweet.
Chapel Hill won the 3A championship with a 2-0 victory over Asheville’s A.C. Reynolds. The Tigers (23-4-1) had lost on the same field at N.C. State’s Dail Soccer Stadium in the previous year to Marvin Ridge.
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“It’s humbling. All the players that we’ve had, the guys who have gone on and fought so hard for us all the way back to when I was first a coach in the fall of ‘99, all those guys,” said Chapel Hill coach Jason Curtis, who joined the program as an assistant coach that year. “I want to start naming them, but I’d be here forever. ... It’s for all them, all the hours they put in, the class they represented our jersey with all those years – and then these boys finally capped it off.”
The road back to the title match wasn’t easy.
Four losses in the regular season helped knock the Tigers down to the fifth seed overall in the East, but Chapel Hill won on the road in three straight rounds (at No. 4 Cleveland, at No. 1 Jacksonville and at No. 3 Lee County).
“The character these boys have and the grit ... they don’t get outworked,” Curtis said. “I cannot thank them enough for what they’ve done for us, our coaches, our coaching staff and all the fans that came. .... It’s surreal. It’s fantastic.”
The two teams were tied 0-0 at the end of the first half despite Chapel Hill’s onslaught of pressure and a lion’s share of possession.
The Tigers didn’t get frustrated.
It paid off in the 62nd minute as senior Justin Mechem chested down a corner kick by Ryan Smith and found the back of the net to go up 1-0.
In the 78th, Mechem returned the favor to the junior.
His free kick from far behind midfield boomed 75 yards in the air and into the box, where Smith ran under it and volleyed it in on one bounce to seal the win over Reynolds (23-4-2).
Smith – who scored in sudden-death overtime in the East final to move by Lee County – was named MVP of the match, and the Tigers’ back line only allowed two Reynolds shots on goals.
It’s the fourth boys’ soccer title for Chapel Hill, with titles coming in 1972, 1974, 1983 and, now, 2017.
“We were very devoted this year to making it here again,” Smith said. “Even though we had our ups and downs, we just pushed through.”