By RYAN HERMAN
The top soccer teams in the Southern District 7 Athletic 2A Conference are giving Lincolnton a headache.
Graham Willis’ header in the second overtime period saved the Wolves from dropping their first league match and they finished tied with league-leading West Caldwell 2-2 on Monday.
After the goal –– the sixth of the year by Willis and third with his head, coach Ian Leith said –– Willis walked to the bench, asked for a breather and said the side of his face hurt following the hard shot with his head.
For fourth-ranked Lincolnton (9-1-2, 5-0-2), it could have been a lot worse.
Willis headed the ball into the net 56 seconds into the second 10-minute overtime session to tie it at 2. The ball bounced around near the front of the net after a deflection by Warriors keeper Roger Perez, and it ricocheted eye-level to Willis, who headed it in for the tie.
After ending regulation tied at 1, fifth-ranked West Caldwell (11-2-1, 6-0-1) scored its second goal early in the first overtime period on what amounted to an own goal. Juan Abonza and keeper Daniel McBride let a saved shot after a throw-in squirt through and it rolled into the back of the net.
Against the league’s top two teams the Wolves have two ties –– both with slow starts –– and are 5-0 versus the rest.
“It’s going to take playing a full game, but honestly, at this point, I think our biggest problem is that we just don’t trust each other,” Leith said. “I think we’re used to being better, and it’s hard for us to play as a team. When we play as a team, like we did at the end, we’re good.”
West Caldwell’s Jonathan Cruz-Nava gave the Warriors a one-goal lead 4 seconds in..
The Warriors received the ball first, and Cruz-Nava sent it flying from midfield over McBride’s reach and into the top-left corner of the net for the early score.
That’s about all the action the first half rendered. Both teams substituted freely, and they spent much of the first 40 minutes chasing balls kicked out of bounds.
While the action may have been dull, the Warriors owned possession, with five shots to Lincolnton’s two.
The Wolves picked up intensity in the second 40 minutes.
“The first half was just dead. I don’t think either team brought their best game,” Leith said. “The second half was picked up, and it turned into the game I thought it was going to be.”
With about 24 minutes to play and down 1-0, Abonza sent a pass up ahead into the box to Jeffrey Perez, who scored to tie it at 1.
The score stood until the end of regulation, with both teams trying frantically to score.
It proved costly for the Warriors.
Cruz-Nava and Lucas Ramiro of Lincolnton went up for a header, and when they came down Cruz-Nava landed awkwardly on his right knee with 1:31 to play.
Cruz-Nava was carried off the field, and spent the rest of the match on the bench with ice on his knee.
Without arguably their best offensive player, the Warriors caught a break in the frenetic overtime session.
A West Caldwell player threw it in from the far side, and it bounced off a Lincolnton defender. Another West Caldwell player took a shot and both Abonza and McBride were there for the save.
As McBride tried to grab the ball, caught between the two, it squirted free and rolled into the net.
Willis’ header roughly eight minutes later tied it, which stood.
The teams, still first and second in the league, meet at West Caldwell on Oct. 23.
“They did well attacking, I just thought we had better chances,” Leith said. “We let in one really bad goal, the first one. We need to limit our free plays –– throw-ins and kicks.
“I thought we outplayed them. We’ll get another chance to see them.”