STORYBOOK ENDING: Chapel Hill girls hoist state title as parting gift to coach
This story with the nice, fairly neat, happy ending was written by the Chapel Hill High School girls’ soccer team: Chapel Hill coach Ron Benson has been with the Tigers soccer program since the 1980s. He’s 73 and this season announced that he’d be retiring.
So the Tigers figured the best parting gift they could give Benson was a 3-A state championship, which they delivered Saturday with a 2-1 win over Waxhaw’s Weddington High School at N.C. State’s Dail Soccer Field.
It was a great script from start to finish.
“If you’d have told me to write the story, I probably wouldn’t have written it this way,” Benson said.
Well, his Tigers are the ones who wrote the script and starred in it, too. It was a thriller, and Benson gets credit for directing what Chapel Hill senior Megan Dell said could not have been written any better.
“You can’t. You definitely can’t,” Dell said. “As a player, you’re doing it for your coach, you’re doing it for your teammates, you’re doing it for your family, you’re doing it for your school — you represent your school.”
Dell and junior midfielder Sofie Nielsen got together for what turned out to be the winning goal with 1:33 left in the match.
Nielsen dribbled down the right wing and laid eyes on Dell at the top of the box.
“I saw Sophie working as hard as she could to get a cross off, and I saw the ball come to me and I saw it go in,” Dell said.
Dell will continue playing soccer in college at Virginia Commonwealth. Teammate and championship game most valuable player Alex “A.K.” Kimball will suit up for North Carolina.
But for about an hour on Saturday, the high school careers of Chapel Hill’s seniors appeared as if they would not end according to what was scripted.
Weddington showed up to the title match averaging 6.3 goals per game. By halftime against Chapel Hill, the Warriors had just one goal, but it was enough for the lead, a missile from freshman Gabby Cormier.
Benson said he was not worried. The Tigers would figure it out in the second half, he said.
“They cut the ball back across the grain on us a lot, which we weren’t used to,” Benson said. “Most teams don’t do that. They just go straight forward. It threw us off a bit, but we always had somebody to clean it up for us.”
The Tigers limited Weddington to seven shots, and Chapel Hill goalies Aylee Whitesides and Madeline Mesaros combined for five saves.
“We’ve got a lot of good players that can score,” Benson said. “We just have good players. We tell them just go back and play our game — finish, open the spaces up. We always have faith through our girls. This is a special team.”
Chapel Hill tied the game with 26:27 left in the second half, a little inside exchange from Kimball to junior Mia Spencer.
“A.K. passed it to me, and I thought I didn’t get the ball,” Spencer said. “The other girl and I kicked it at the same time, and I came out with it and I shot it and I thought the goalie got her hands on it, but it went in.”
There was a good bit of pushing and shoving out there. The Warriors got the worst of it with several yellow cards, which had their fans seeing red and accusing the referees of showing too much love to Kimball, the future Tar Heel.
“When you get those yellow cards, and you get them to your talented players that are your physical players, they do have to monitor how they play,” Weddington coach Powell Williams said. “So they do have to back off of their intensity, so I think it maybe changed the momentum of the game a little bit. But I think Chapel Hill, when they scored, they kind of were playing downhill on us, and we just never could find that one pass or that one opportunity to kind of get back to break them down.”
Last week during the semifinals in Wilson, Fike fans gave Kimball a hard time. With the championship on the line, Kimball didn’t have time to worry about hostile Warriors.
“In times like these and in games like these, you just have to persevere and you just have to push through everything, and I’m just going to try to do the same thing at Carolina,” Kimball said.
Weddington (20-3-1) was making its second appearance in the finals.
Chapel Hill, as good it’s been in soccer over the years, never had played for all of the marbles. The Tigers’ (23-1) lone loss this season was to Raleigh’s Cardinal Gibbons, last year’s state champs. But Chapel Hill sent the Crusaders home in the third round of playoffs. The teams split in the regular season, each winning at home by identical 1-0 scores.
After the championship hardware was handed out, the Tigers hammed it up and huddled for photos, their coach stretched out in front of them.
Benson was taking a final bow.
“I’m retiring June 13,” Benson said. “I might do a little volunteering if they want me to come help them with drills in practice or something. But I’m going to do a lot of surfing and gardening and stuff. I grew up surfing and haven’t been able to do it as much as I wanted to, but now I’m going to.”
NCHSAA 3-A CHAMPIONSHIP
Chapel Hill 2, Weddington 1
Chapel Hill 0 2 — 2
Weddington 1 0 — 1
Goals (assists) — Chapel Hill, Mia Spencer (Alex Kimball), Megan Dell (Sofie Nielsen). Weddington, Gabby Cormier (Chandler Arrowood). Saves — Chapel Hill, Aylee Whitesides 3, Madeline Mesaros 2. Weddington 3. Shots — Chapel Hill 5. Weddington 7. Corner kicks — Chapel Hill 2. Weddington 4.
Records — Chapel Hill 23-1, Weddington 20-3-1.