It wasn’t just that Providence had been booted from the N.C. High School Athletic Association Class 4A playoffs that bothered Clark Currier as he discouragingly walked off the field on Nov. 3, 2012.
For the third consecutive season, the Panthers had been eliminated in the second round of the playoffs. This time it was on penalty kicks after the Panthers hung with highly regarded Myers Park throughout regulation and overtime before succumbing to the rival Mustangs in the shootout.
As Currier watched the four seniors on the Panthers’ roster walk off the field that night, with the impact of the painful defeat agonizingly evident with their every move, he vowed his senior year wouldn’t end that way.
“Seeing our four seniors walk off the field was hard,” Currier said. “They were just destroyed after the game. I don’t want that for my senior year. The only way to win your last game is to be state champions and that’s what I want to do. I don’t want to end it with a loss.
“Losing second round last year really motivated us. We don’t want to repeat that, so we’re going to start hard but continue to build on that every game that we play. It’s great that we’ve started out as well as we have and it’s satisfying to walk off the field with a win. But for us, you only get to enjoy wins that night, and then it’s practice the next day and you get ready for the next game and constantly think ahead.”
So far, with the help of Currier and fellow seniors Connor Kirby and Andrew Zendan, the Panthers have begun their quest to change the events of past seasons.
With a 1-0 win over South Mecklenburg on Sept. 25, the Panthers moved to 13-0 on the season and are ranked No. 1 among the state’s Class 4A teams by Eurosportscorecard.com. But to coach Tim Long, the Panthers have merely crossed one goal off their list.
“That’s one of the things we talked about at the beginning of the season, that we’re going to break our season down into thirds,” Long said. “We’re going to start with non-conference play, move to conference play and then onto playoffs and do the best we can at each one.
“Our ultimate goal is to win all three (phases), and be the best that we can be in all three. So far, we’ve got our non-conference play, so now we’re in conference. We have (eight) games left and a lot to play for. I told them nobody gets any awards for how they look in midseason.”
Despite the Panthers’ gaudy record and equally impressive ranking, there is still a lot of work to do – and Long’s players have bought into his way of thinking.
“Coach (Long) doesn’t let us get caught up in the glory of being undefeated,” said Kirby, who was a N.C. Coaches’ Association all-state selection last season. “He treats it like we’re 0-0 and treats every day like we have work to do and pushes us to do our best.”
That drive is something the Panthers have adopted and passed down to the younger guys on the team who are contributing to Providence’s success on a nightly basis.
“I tell them to not look at the rankings,” Currier said. “We treat it like we’re 0-0 and approach every day wanting to win that day. The minute you start thinking about it is the minute you start falling, so you have to go into every game as it’s a new game and it’s the most important one.”
With that mindset, the Panthers have been versatile in dispatching opponents in a number of different ways – running the gauntlet from a 1-0 win over defending Class 2A champ Cuthbertson to an 10-2 victory over winless
While the Panthers are finding new ways to win, the one constant has been the defense. Through 13 games the Panthers have scored 65 goals on offense while allowing just nine.
“The competition is even better than last year, but we have some new players who have come in and helped out,” Zendan said. “Plus, our whole defense has been playing together for a really long time. At this point, we’re like brothers.”
With the Panthers bonded and fully invested together in the season, they’ve proved to be a tough out.
“Our focus is defense first,” Long added, seconding Zendan’s opinion. “You look at last year, you look at our record and we had a lot of ties, and low-scoring games. We returned our entire defense from last year and added some from the JV team. We knew going into this year that our defense was going to be a strength.
“We play defense first, and if you know going in that the team will score zero or one goal, we know if we can get two, we’ll have as good of a chance as anyone to win the game.”
Last season, the Panthers finished 13-6-5 – a record that may be deceiving as the defense kept Providence in every game. In fact, the Panthers played 17 games that either ended in a tie or one-goal difference, which spurred their hot start to this season.
To this point, the Panthers have followed Long’s defensive formula to perfection. A big reason is the play of Kirby and Zendan, who team in the center-midfield to help hold opponents’ attackers at bay.
“Connor is a two-time captain and kind of our ultimate captain who does so much for us,” Long said. “Andrew is left-footed and Connor is right-footed which is great for us to have in the backfield. They compliment each other so well that it really helps our whole defense.”
While the defense has been exemplary, the team’s mindset should help them navigate the final eight games of the season and improved upon their disappointing playoff losses.
And as the wins continue to build and early-season promise turns into increased expectation and mounting pressure, the Panthers have a feeling this season will turn out much better than it has in the past three years. With their bonded defense fueling the Panthers and their talented senior class, Kirby, Currier and Zendan, feel this is their time to leave their mark on Panthers’ soccer history.
“It’s our senior year and we’ve been waiting for this,” Kirby said. “We’ve been playing together and playing well.”
When times inevitably get tough when the pressure is on, these Panthers will be ready to do what they’ve displayed all season.
“We never stop attacking, we’re always pushing,” Currier said. “The defense doesn’t ever stop, it doesn’t matter if it’s 1-0, 8-0 or 5-0 – we are always pushing on the front end.
“That’s our biggest strength. We just never stop and won’t be satisfied otherwise.”