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CHINA GROVE — Carson’s soccer team learned the hard way just how dangerous a No. 28 seed can be in the state 3A playoffs.
The fifth-seeded Cougars were forced out of their comfort zone in Wednesday’s 4-1 opening-round win against visiting Hickory.
“That’s exactly what I thought it was going to be,” winning coach Justin Buckwalter said after Carson (16-4) won its seventh straight match and advanced to Saturday’s second round. “Right when the brackets came out, I saw Hickory and thought ‘This has got to be the worst 5/28 matchup ever. We won the SPC and it felt like our reward was Hickory, state runner-up from a year ago.”
It made for interesting drama and a rugged match. The Red Tornadoes (10-9-5) — who dropped the 2012 championship game to Jacksonville in overtime — took an early lead and effectively played keep-away for the first 10 minutes.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better start,” Hickory coach Brian Jillings said after sophomore Nick Dixon opened the scoring with a rising blast just 1:32 into the match. “We just couldn’t capitalize and get that second goal. That might have made a big difference. We had some opportunities with balls popping around in front but couldn’t get a lucky bounce.”
Carson, meanwhile, struggled to get its high-octane offense out of first gear. The match was 13-minutes old before Brandon Flores launched the Cougars’ first shot, a 15-yard banana kick that sailed wide of the cage.
“It was a different environment tonight,” senior Fox Correll noted. “The competetion was very high. There wasn’t a time when you could take a break on a ball. It was constant pressure.”
Much of that was created by Hickory’s defense, which was more sturdy than spectacular. It used a stopper-sweeper formation to handcuff Flores, Carson’s leading scorer, until the quick-footed sophomore netted his 36th goal in the waning moments.
“I’m fairly certain they knew who Brandon was,” Buckwalter said. “They wanted to take him out of the game and see if we were a one-man show or if we had other people who could step up.”
That mystery was solved when Colton Correll — Fox’s younger brother — tied the score 1-1 when he took a feed from Raunel Vasquez and one-timed a shot past Hickory keeper Will Arditti midway through the first half. Carson went up 2-1 when Fidel Flores’ long throw-in from the left side caromed off two defenders, then the right post and into the net.
“It was unfortunate for them, but it counts,” said Fox Correll, a senior who comes off the Carson bench. “A goal’s a goal.”
A minute later, with 7:42 remaining in the half, Fox Correll took a pass from Ricky Maldonado and rifled an 18-yard shot past Arditti for a 3-1 lead. Brandon Flores beat two defenders and netted the game’s final goal with 3:45 to play.
“The effort was there,” Hickory midfielder Reece Williams said after the Red Tornadoes were outshot 17-16. “Stopping the counter attack was the main goal. It worked for a while. We were doing things right — attacking the corners, finding weak spots and crossing the ball in front. We just knew we’d have to score two-plus goals to win and we fell short.”

NOTES: Carson, winner of 11 of its last 12 matches, has outscored opponents 101-39 this season. It hosts 21st-seeded Asheville (12-5-4), a 2-0 first-round winner against Northern Guilford.

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