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STANHOPE — The road to the 3-A Big East Conference varsity boys soccer regular-season championship still runs through Fike High.
After an 0-2 start to their season, the Golden Demons won their sixth straight game Monday afternoon at Southern Nash, using a pair of goals from junior Gavin Wheeler to account for the difference. Southern Nash, which suffered its first loss in nine matches, equalized with 17 minutes, 4 seconds remaining on a strike by junior Eric Hernandez. Fike, the defending Big East champion, has now won 17 straight conference matches, counting regular-season and tournament encounters, dating back to 2017.
But overtime proved to be unnecessary after Wheeler collected a carom off the crossbar that was initially shot by senior Kevin Mendoza. Wheeler waited in the box to grab the rebound that slowly fell to the ground before collecting and sending it past Firebirds goalkeeper Eliel Benitez for the final margin with 6:44 to go.
“It was a great shot by Kevin,” Wheeler said of the rebound that eventually produced the game winner. “I just happened to be there at the right time.”
An extended feeling out period in the first half produced little in the way of quality opportunities until Fike slid into halftime with a one-goal cushion. Off a 40th-minute throw in, Wheeler collected the ball, maneuvered into the penalty area and beat a defender. His low shot lightly caromed off the inside of the near post and beat Benitez, handing the Golden Demons the momentum heading into halftime.
Both Fike tallies came in scramble situations after the Demons committed to quickly getting the ball off their feet against Southern’s defensive pressure.
“They weren’t nearly as high pressure as we were expecting,” Fike head coach Chris Mizelle said. “That’s what we had prepared for. Other than their front three, I didn’t think they pressed us but so high. I didn’t think we did a great job of winning balls in the midfield and exploiting some of the gaps they gave us, but they did a fine job defensively and limited a lot of what we wanted to do. Credit to them for that.”
While Fike struggled to turn midfield wins into quality chances in its offensive third, the defensive group, led by sophomore Oc Bolt and junior John Conoley, turned Firebird threats aside in the second half. Southern Nash had flickering moments of opportunity over the final 40 minutes, but could not turn the chances into goals.
In the 46th minute, Southern Nash quickly countered a Fike corner, leaving junior Lelyn Herndon one on one with Fike freshman keeper Mason Ross. But Herndon didn’t get a good strike on the ball as it meandered wide left for a goal kick.
Roughly 13 minutes later, the Firebirds pressed forward on a promising counter, only to have a push-off foul whistle it down.
Hernandez did draw Southern Nash level in the 63rd minute, launching a shot from over 30 yards out. Ross attempted to time his jump and got a hand on the ball, but it wasn’t enough to send it out of play as it fell to the ground under the crossbar and past the line. That held — until Wheeler poked home the rebound for Fike.
“They just have good players that know how to execute,” Southern Nash head coach Carlos Barron said. “Was it Gavin Wheeler who finished it? He’s got speed and he’s got touch. You can’t leave a guy like that open.”
“I think we’re seasoned enough, at least as a coaching staff and with a good part of the lineup,” Mizelle said. “We’re a fairly veteran group in a lot of ways. I don’t think a tie scoreline really puts us under a lot of pressure. Had we been down a goal, down two, it might have been a bit different. But a tie scoreline, I think we feel pretty good with 20 minutes left.”
Fike returns home for another Big East match against Franklinton on Wednesday and steps out of conference for a Friday night home date with Swansboro. Southern Nash plays its second match as part of a three-day grind, hosting Nash Central on Tuesday and visiting Northern Nash on Wednesday.
“We really don’t have the luxury of taking a break,” Barron said. “We’ve got to come right back tomorrow.”