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Patriots edge out Phoenix to win regional championship

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WAKE FOREST — It was a back and forth affair between Franklin Academy and Raleigh Charter’s boys soccer team, but the Patriots scored the game-winning goal with 17 minutes left in the match to win the 1A east regional championship 4-3 at home Tuesday. The goal that decided the match was decided by Franklin Academy’s Mateo Espinoza. The senior midfielder, who played most of the night at defensive back, took a long shot from the side. The ball curved into the top right corner of the net where Raleigh Charter’s goalkeeper couldn’t reach. Franklin Academy head coach Justin Bailey said that goal summarized the team’s entire strategy. “We had to take risks tonight to win this one,” Bailey said. “Mateo got out of his back position and got a good look at goal. We had to take more shots on goal. In the first half, we only had two shots on goal that were not off of set pieces. Mateo put his foot on the ball and it couldn’t have been better.” Espinoza said it was all a matter of taking advantage of every little opportunity he could find out there on the field. As soon as he saw an opening, he took no time taking the shot. “I just saw a gap in the goal,” Espinoza said. “I took the shot and it curled in. Sometimes you just have to hit the ball like that.” Not only did Espinoza score the game-winning goal, but he was also credited with two assists off two corner kicks. Franklin Academy scored the first goal of the match off a corner from Espinoza. Josh Eatmon was waiting in the penalty box and knocked the ball into the back of the net nine minutes into the game. About 14 minutes later, Espinoza took another corner kick and it resulted in another goal. Harrison Lewis kicked the ball into the bottom corner of the net to put the Patriots up 2-0. “We put a lot of emphasis on our corner kicks,” Bailey said. “We are looking to get as many corners as we can and as many shots as we can. It’s a great way to try to get a goal. The more we can get, the better we are.” With eight minutes left in the first half, Raleigh Charter scored off a penalty kick to cut the deficit to 2-1 before halftime. Six minutes into the second half, the Phoenix scored again off a goal from Jack Balint-Kurti. That tied the match 2-2.

It didn’t take long for Franklin Academy to take back the lead. Two minutes later, Mateo Echevarria kicked in a goal to put the Patriots up 3-2. However, Raleigh Charter scored again off another penalty kick four minutes later to tie the game again at 3-3. Then with 17 minutes left in the match, Espinoza gave the advantage back to his Patriots with the long shot from the side. “Raw emotions helped us get through this one,” Espinoza said. “Raleigh Charter has been our rivals for a long time. We just wanted it more.” After going up by one goal, Franklin Academy held strong on defense for the remaining 17 minutes. The Patriots kept the Phoenix from scoring long enough to win their second 1A east regional championship in three years. Franklin Academy and Raleigh Charter have had quite a few battles in recent years. The last time the Patriots won regionals was when they beat the Phoenix 2-1 in 2017. Then last year, Raleigh Charter beat Franklin Academy 4-3 in the regular season. Bailey was an assistant coach for Franklin Academy in all of those previous matches. He said beating the Phoenix for the first time as a head coach is something special to be proud of. “It’s good to beat Raleigh Charter,” Bailey said. “They are always a hard team to beat. Last year, we lost to them 4-3 on the road after being up 3-1. We knew Raleigh Charter can score. To beat a team like them, it feels good.” With the win, Franklin Academy improved to 24-2 overall. That’s the most wins in one season in program history. The Patriots are riding on an eight-game win streak. They hope that streak continues in the 1A state championship game Saturday. “I’ve told the guys all year to trust what we’re doing,” Bailey said. “These guys are good players, so they have to believe in themselves. If we keep our cool, we’ll have a good shot at the state title.” Franklin Academy will play Christ the King High School for the 1A state title at Koka Booth Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary Saturday at 6 p.m. “It feels great to win regionals,” Espinoza said. “It’s good to be back in the state title game. We just have to keep our heads and emotions in check. We just have to play our game.”