By RYAN HERMAN
Juan Abonza is pretty disappointed Lincolnton’s boys soccer team didn’t win a conference championship, and he plans on making up for it in the state playoffs.
Abonza, a senior, isn’t happy the Wolves lost two of their last four matches –– both to a pair of teams that finished tied for the Southern District 7 Athletic 2A Conference title –– but today begins a new season and a brand new set of goals.
Lincolnton opens the NCHSAA state 2A playoffs at Monroe at 6 p.m. today.
“It was everybody’s plan to be first place,” the defensive specialist said. “Obviously we finished the season with a bad game, but that’s in the past. The playoffs is a new season. It’s do-or-die right now.”
Abonza has been an anchor for a defense that has eight shutouts this season. But losses late at West Caldwell and Newton-Conover cost the Wolves (14-3-2) their shot at a SD-7 championship and precious spots in the newly-implemented seeding process for the state playoffs.
Instead of a top-16 seed and a first round home playoff match, Lincolnton finished third in the league –– West Caldwell got the league’s No. 1 playoff seed by virtue of a draw after finishing tied for first with Newton-Conover –– and is seeded 18th in the 32-team West bracket.
But there’s nothing the Wolves can do about that now. All they should be focused on is beating the Redhawks (10-8-1).
“Obviously Monroe’s record is worse than ours, but they’ve played good teams, too, so I know they’re ready just like us,” Abonza said. “Once we get there and get ready, we’ve got to come out intense from start to end.”
Six of the eight teams in the SD-7 made the playoffs, solidifying the case that it is one of the best 2A soccer conferences around.
With 75 percent of the league having records good enough to qualify –– only Maiden and West Lincoln did not –– Lincolnton feels it is battle tested enough for a deep state playoff run.
Abonza wants to go farther than the third-round trip his team made last season.
“Every team we had in our conference was good (and) that’s prepared us,” he said. “I’m glad we’re in this conference because we could easily have a conference where we win all the games by blowouts, and come into the playoffs and choke thinking it’s going to be easy. That gets us ready.”
The Wolves and Monroe, which finished second in the Rocky River 2A Conference, have similar makeups, Lincolnton coach Ian Leith said.
It’ll almost be like the Wolves are playing themselves.
“We know they like to shoot a lot. We know they like to work quick passes,” Leith said. “If we can do what I’ve asked us to do, we can beat pretty much anybody.”
“Hopefully playing in a good conference like this will make us ready for anything,” Leith added.
Abonza, who also plays the midfield position when needed, believes his team wasn’t as focused as it should have been the final two weeks of the season. Ultimately, it cost the Wolves a conference championship.
They were shut out in their two losses to West Caldwell and Newton-Conover, so scoring has become a priority in the win-or-go-home portion of the season.
“It’s going to take heart, and like coach said, a perfect game,” Abonza said. “We can’t make mistakes and have to win the mental game.
“And obviously we have to score because we’ve been struggling with that.”