DENVER — The East Lincoln Mustangs suffered a 6-1 home loss to the Shelby Lions Monday night.
While East Lincoln fans and Shelby players alike were certain the match would be a shutout, the Mustang squad proved to the crowd in the game’s final 45 seconds that they weren’t going down without a fight —without lighting up the scoreboard with a point.
Sophomore Mustang Garrett Reavis hammered the ball into the back of the net nearly 30 yards out from the Lions’ defending goal, forcing everyone in the stadium to their feet.
Shelby is just one of the challenging teams East Lincoln head coach Jason Dragoon has lined up to battle his aggressive squad in what he calls a “mini season before the season,” and he has makes no apologies for it, noting how his deliberate scheduling makes his team a “consistent threat for the conference title” each year and exposes his team’s weaknesses so they can correct their skills sooner rather than later.
“When you look at our playoff success in both the women’s and men’s side of soccer and our slow rise to being a playoff contender, there is a strong correlation between strength of schedule early and success later,” he said. “Each team benefits in its own way, whether it’s playing on wider fields, traveling more, playing a lot of games in a short period of time or just the difficulty of the opposition.”
The Lions took control of the match early in the first half, with Michael Cheaney scoring his team’s first goal of the night, launching a strong, low shot under the leg of his opponent’s goalkeeper.
Four minutes later, the Lions celebrated a second team goal by Phillip Richards.
While the Mustangs’ players appeared individually aggressive and strong throughout the half, the home squad failed to outshine their Cleveland County visitors in passing and field organization.
The Lions were close to cheering a third team goal off a header at minute 24, but an East Lincoln defender, freshman Blake Strupp, moved into position to counter the shot with a second consecutive header in the mouth of the goal.
However, at the 29-minute mark, Shelby increased their lead over the Mustangs with a goal secured by Sam Gofourth.
For the half’s final minutes, East Lincoln continued to thwart the Lions’ shots and maneuver through the sea of black jerseys swarming their defending goal.
Seven minutes into the second half, the Lions gained a fourth goal after Ben Gold, inches from the goal mouth, popped the ball in behind the goalkeeper, sending teammates into yet another celebratory embrace.
Seconds later, Gold cheered a second personal goal, forcing the score margin up another point.
Leading 5-0 over the Mustangs, the Lions refused to settle their attack, barely allowing East Lincoln players to pass the midfield point. On occasion, white jerseys would outrun Shelby’s defensive line, breaking out into the open with a shot on goal. However, most shots were low, hard and forced into the goalkeeper’s hands with little time for Mustang players to plan a more clever attack.
Manning Burton secured the Lions’ lead a sixth time over at the 17-minute mark, and for the time that ticked slowly between the visiting team’s final goal and the game’s final minute countdown, the Mustangs unceasingly fought to put their presence in lights and hear fans applaud just one successful shot.
Reavis gained that brief moment for his squad before the scoreboard buzzed and Shelby celebrated their 5-point conquest over the Mustangs.
Despite the loss, Dragoon remained confident that the match gave his team opportunities to “fix the holes” in their level of play without tarnish on their conference record.
“Losses on the record have no implication for our conference race or playoff seeding,” he said. “It only makes sense to challenge your team as much as possible and be as prepared as possible for anything that could come your way in November.”
East Lincoln is currently 1-6 overall, scoring an average of one goal per match so far this season, falling to Newton-Conover, Hickory, Cuthbertson, South Iredell and Providence.