North Murray’s boys soccer team became the high school’s first program to claim a region title when it won the Region 7-2A tournament last season.
The Mountaineers entered this year as favorites to wear a crown again in their new league, Region 5-3A — and they appear to have had no difficulties handling the burden.
North Murray currently stands alone atop the Region 5-3A standings with an unblemished record and clear path to another championship. But players say it hasn’t all been easy, with opposing teams aware of what a win against the Mountaineers could mean.
Being the team to beat is new for North Murray, which is in its third varsity season. Mountaineers coach Matt Chambers said he thought his team, which last year lost to favorite Calhoun before beating the Yellow Jackets in the region tournament, was “expected to be runners-up” in 2012.
That’s not the case this year.
“We’re kind of used to being the underdogs,” Chambers said. “But this year is a little different because we’re the target. We definitely came in as the top team in the region.
“Ismael Cruz even said on the way home from one of our games, ‘Man, every time we go play, the teams give us the best they’ve got.’”
Last season, the Mountaineers earned the Region 7-2A championship with a shootout victory against rival Calhoun after regulation ended in a 1-1 draw. It was the first region title in any sport for the Mountaineers, and the team is well on its way to a second.
The Mountaineers are 10-0 in league play — they’re 10-2 overall with losses to Region 7-4A powers Dalton and Northwest Whitfield — but have faced quite a few challenges from opponents. Monday’s 5-3 penalty-kick win against visiting Coahulla Creek was one of three matches North Murray has won in a shootout — the other two were against Sonoraville on March 7 and 28.
North Murray’s March 19 game against Cartersville and March 26 game against Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe were both 2-1 victories. Twice the Mountaineers have won 2-0 against Ringgold and once 3-0 against Gordon Central. The two wins against Adairsville, 9-0 and 5-0, are the only blowouts for North Murray.
But the Mountaineers don’t expect to ever relax on the field.
“We know we have to play the full 80 minutes each time,” said Freddy Urbina, a senior striker. “We know that no matter how good or bad a team is, we have to play it like a final because they are going to give us a tough match.”
North Murray reached the quarterfinals of last season’s Class 2A state playoffs before losing 6-1 to Westminster. Chambers said the objective heading into the season was two-fold: repeat as region champs and make a run to the state semifinals.
“We want to make it past the (round of) eight,” said Cruz, also a senior. “If possible, even to the finals.”
With players like Cruz and Urbina, both on The Daily Citizen’s 2012 All-Area Boys Soccer Team, North Murray started this year with plenty of confidence.
“Last year was an experience because we just wanted to see how far we’d go,” Urbina said. “We were like the new kids on the block. So we saw how good we were and how we have progressed. This year everyone is just playing at their best.”
Only one starter from last year’s team graduated, center defender Edgar Mendez. His brother, Aaron, claimed that role for the 2013 season. Urbina set the program record last year with 25 goals while tacking on 12 assists from his striker position. Cruz, a center midfielder, scored 15 goals and assisted on 11 more last season. He entered the season with the program’s all-time scoring record.
Goalkeeper Manuel Gonzalez was an all-area honorable mention last year as a sophomore, and this season he’s only allowing 1.2 goals per game. In region matches, the number drops to 0.5.
Just four games remain on North Murray’s schedule, with the likely toughest tests next week. North Murray travels to Cartersville at 7:30 p.m. Monday and to Coahulla Creek at 7 p.m. Friday. Cartersville has one loss in league play, while Coahulla Creek has three.
Win those two, and the Mountaineers clinch another region title.
Just like last year was the school’s first league championship, a repeat could mark the first time a North Murray athletics program has won back-to-back titles. (North Murray’s boys golf team will go for its own region repeat during Monday’s 5-3A tournament at Indian Trace Golf Course in Chatsworth.)
“That would be awesome,” Chambers said. “We break all kinds of records for North Murray.”