By Michael Held
Special to the Johnstonian News
KENLY — Last year, the Smithfield-Selma boys soccer team struggled to a 4-16-1 record including a winless trek through the 3A Greater Neuse Conference.
My, how things have changed.
The Spartans picked up their fourth win in five games this season with an impressive 4-1 win on the road at North Johnston (2-4-1) last Thursday night.
Zaquan Sanders got the scoring started in the 18th minute as the junior forward held off two North Johnston defenders on a run down the middle of the pitch before toe-poking the ball past Panthers goalie Jonie Moreno for his third goal in two games.
Senior Juan Navarro doubled the lead when he was in the right place at the right time to follow up teammate Roger Salazar’s strike on goal and rattled the ball off the far post and in for a 2-0 halftime lead for the guests.
For first-year coach Kate Hill, this team does not look like a squad that had so many struggles just a season ago.
“Last year they went 0-10 in conference and I think this team is just different,” Hill said. “You can just feel it, you can see it. They’re confident; they’re excited.
“We have 14 seniors and I think that makes all the difference in the world because they want it so bad.”
North Johnston, playing its third game of the week, came out more aggressive to start the second half, pressing more players forward, and that high press resulted in a quick goal that cut the lead in half.
Just 80 seconds into the second period, Graham Walston pounced on a deflected ball from Scott Sellers’ free kick inside the box and fired a shot on target. The ball was directed toward the far post where Ty Narron was ready to clean up and banged it in for his second goal of the season.
Looking to equalize, the Panthers kept pressing numbers forward, which opened them up defensively, and eventually Smithfield-Selma took advantage with late goals from Navarro and Dennis Morales-Aguilar to ice the game.
North Johnston allowed just 10 goals through six games entering the contest but first-year coach Winston Pennington knows the team needs to be more forward-minded to create scoring chances on the other end of the field.
“Last night we stayed behind the ball too much so tonight I really wanted us to focus on pressing the ball higher up the field,” said Pennington. “It was successful but it also opened us up. We’ve really been focused on defending as a team and we’ve been very strong with it but now we’re to the point we need to press the ball higher.”
Earlier in the week, Narron and Jose Rios tallied goals in a 2-1 win over Goldsboro, but the Panthers surrendered a 1-0 halftime lead at Carrboro as the Jaguars found the net four times in the second half.
For the Spartans, Sanders scored a brace while Navarro and Salazar added one goal apiece in Smithfield-Selma’s 4-2 win over Southern Nash earlier in the week.
The Panthers and Spartans will meet again this Thursday at Smithfield-Selma.