CORNELIUS – In one chilly evening, the nationally ranked Hough High girls soccer team lost a match, its state-record winning streak and the conference lead.
Hough’s national ranking – first in one poll and fourth in another – also will take a hit. The Huskies’ season was far from decimated, but now they’ll have to play catch-up.
Hough, which won its first seven games this season without allowing a goal, lost 3-2 to rival Lake Norman in an I-MECK 4A conference match on March 28. It snapped Hough’s 32-game winning streak.
The loss wasn’t a shocking upset because Lake Norman (11-0) is consistently among the state’s best teams.
“It's a wake-up call,” Hough coach David Smith said. “How we respond to this is going to be huge."
Last season, en route to the N.C. 4A championship, Hough beat Lake Norman three times – twice in the regular season and once in the playoffs.
“As happy as I was to beat Green Hope (in the final) last year, I was almost more proud of the fact we beat Lake Norman three times,” Smith said. “To me, they were probably the second- or third-best team in the state last year. Easily. They were 22-0 against everybody else in the state. We know how good Lake Norman is.”
Hough players, hoping to avoid a jinx, playfully knocked on wood when answering questions about the winning streak a day before playing Lake Norman.
“If we were to lose, I honestly think that would be more fuel,” goalkeeper Marnie Merritt said. “Our shirts say `Win the Day,’ it doesn’t matter who you play. You’re going to win your tackle, win everything you need to.”
Hough, in its third season, is used to winning.
The Huskies were 22-4-1 in their debut season (2011), 26-0-1 last season and 7-1 this season. That’s 55-5-2 overall.
Hough has plenty enough talent to make another run deep into the state playoffs this spring. Before losing to Lake Norman, they’d outscored seven opponents 38-0.
“We put pressure on the other team’s goal,” Smith said. “We put pressure on their defense very well. I think we’re better attacking-wise than we were at this time last year. We have more people that are dangerous at virtually every spot.”
Three Huskies (Courtney Crump, Courtney Carroll and Brandi Arey) have accounted for most of the team’s goals, but 10 players have scored.
Merritt, who committed to the University of Mississippi, is among the region’s best goalkeepers.
Not allowing a goal all season wasn’t a practical thought.
“They know it’s going to happen because it’s the law of averages,” Smith said.
Hough’s 32 victories in a row made a splash around the state (the previous record was 28), but Smith said it wasn’t the team’s main goal.
“It provides a bridge from last year to this year, but it’s not what we’re focused on,” he said. “Our focus is getting better to where we want to be in May. The goal is to go 6-0 in May (during playoffs).”
Smith said there have been positives and negatives to the streak.
"One negative is some of the girls have been too content,” he said. “Some, with the girls we lost (to graduation) have had huge opportunities in front of them, and it’s taken some longer to realize this is their chance to step up. That’s working itself out.”
“A positive is they step on the field every night expecting to win. It’s not arrogant. It’s not cocky. They go out with that mindset. We respect the people we’re playing. We respect the game, but at the same time we feel like if we play the way we’re capable of playing, we give ourselves a good chance to win.”
Merritt said Hough must be wary of resting on last year’s laurels.
“There’s a champions’ slump, they call it, Merritt said. “We don’t want to be in that. Everyone’s coming for us and they want that No. 1 spot as much as we want it. We have to do the things we’ve done to get back to that No. 1 spot, where we want to be at the end of the year.”
The record winning streak is dead. Any pressure it generated will likely be replaced by the stress of trying to catch Lake Norman.
“The streak means a lot,” Arey said, before the loss. “Actually, it’s kind of hard on us, with a lot of pressure. We have to keep our minds right and not let our egos get too big.”