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Cougars clinch NAC 6 off penalty kicks

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WAKE FOREST — The rematch between Wake Forest and Heritage’s boys soccer team went into overtime again, but this time, the Cougars beat the Huskies on the road Monday by outscoring them 3-1 on penalty kicks to finish undefeated in the NAC 6 conference. Both teams were tied at 2-2 at the end of regulation. Neither squad scored in overtime to force penalty kicks to determine the conference champion. Wake Forest head coach Rick Pittarelli said his guys played hard enough to get the victory. “It was amazing to win a game like this,” Pittarelli said. “As a coach, you want to do your very best to put your team in a game-winning situation. The boys fought hard all game. It’s one of those games where they played real tough. Fortunately, the penalty kicks went our way tonight.” It was a scoreless start to the game, but Wake Forest finally made the ball go back into the net with 7:36 left in the first half. James Holmes took the throw-in and passed the ball to Bryan Marshall. The senior hit the ball with his head and then it bounced off a Heritage defender to go into the net for the first goal of the night. Seven minutes into the second half, Wake Forest’s Chris Steg scored off an assist from Abdoulie Sanneh to extend the lead to 2-0 for the Cougars. “We’re used to games like this,” Steg said. “We just had to come out and finish. That’s exactly what we did.” Heritage put themselves into the game five minutes later with a goal from Logan Coyne off an assist from Colin Cook. That cut the deficit to 2-1. With 16 minutes left in regulation, Heritage tied the game off a goal from Josh Bratager and Cook was credited with his second assist of the game. “You have to have a short-term memory as a goalkeeper,” Wake Forest goalkeeper Connor Kitson said. “If you make a mistake, you just have to push through and keep going.” Heritage head coach Scott Sloan said the match was similar to their last meeting with the Cougars. “We had another slow start against Wake Forest,” Sloan said. “We started slow against them last time we played. We picked it up in the second half. It took us being down two goals to wake up.” In the final minute of the game, Heritage missed a free kick and squandered a failed corner kick. Those two missed chances put the game into overtime. After a scoreless first and second period of overtime, the match had to be decided by penalty kicks. Both teams selected their five best players to take the field. Heritage’s Landon Sloan lined up for the first penalty kick. It was saved by Kitson to keep the Huskies off the board. Bryan Marshall stepped up for the Cougars. He made his shot count to make Wake Forest go up 1-0.

Daniel Lugo was next for the Huskies. Kitson blocked his shot to preserve the lead for the Cougars. Josh Rutland took the next kick for Wake Forest and sinked it into the back of the net. That gave the Cougars a 2-0 advantage. Josh Bratager made the first penalty kick for Heritage to cut the deficit to 2-1. Next, Sanneh stepped up for Wake Forest. He missed his shot, giving the Huskies another chance. Pablo Rodriguez stepped up for a crucial penalty kick for Heritage. However, Kitson was there again to block his shot and give his Cougars another chance. “I just used my instincts,” Kitson said. “I give it to my guys for playing a great game. All 10 of them had a good game.” Steg lined up for the potential game-winning goal. If he makes it, the Cougars are NAC 6 conference champs. The senior striker stepped up and nailed the shot into the back of the net. Wake Forest cleared the bench and charged the field to celebrate their first conference championship in decades. “I just knew all my brothers had my back,” Steg said. “I knew in my heart that we wanted this win more than Heritage did. We just came out and proved it.” Heritage lost their first home game of the season to Wake Forest. The Huskies finished the regular season 14-5-3 and 8-2 in NAC 6 conference play. Their two losses were to Wake Forest. “I’m proud of the boys for making it a good game,” Sloan said. “We had the better play in the final minutes of regulation. We had some good opportunities. It is what it is. At the end, Wake Forest’s penalty kicks were better than ours.” With the win, Wake Forest improved to 15-1-2 overall and 10-0 in NAC 6 conference play. The Cougars finish the regular season undefeated at home and enter the 4A state playoffs with an 11-game win streak. “It’s been a long-time coming,” Steg said. “This is our night and I’m just so ecstatic. We’re making history and it’s so awesome.” Despite the big loss, Heritage will stay make the 4A state playoffs after finishing second in the conference. The Huskies went on a five-game win streak after their first loss to the Cougars. Now they will have to start a new one in the postseason. “We just have to keep growing,” Sloan said. “This isn’t the end of our season. We know what we have as a team. We would like another shot at Wake Forest.” Wake Forest joins Northwest Guilford and South Central as the only one-loss soccer teams in the state at the 4A level. The Cougars are hoping to only keep it at one loss for the rest of their season as they prepare for a 4A state championship run. “We just have to keep grinding and keep going,” Steg said. “We just go in and focus on one opponent at a time,” Pittarelli said. “We’re always trying to work on things to make ourselves better. We just have to keep working hard.”