As first half became second, as regulation became overtime, it began to feel Tuesday as if the result Polk County well-deserved might not be soon arriving.
Deserved not just because the Wolverines are finally a team finding its footing, a group that has gritted its teeth through quarantines and postponements and seem to be jelling at exactly the right moment. To halt the season, given that, would seem the cruelest of endings.
No, this one felt that it should be in the Wolverines’ column not for that reason, but because of the manner in which the game transpired, Polk largely controlling play everywhere except the scoreboard. Yet zeroes dotted each side as overtime began, and it stood apparent that the first break would likely be the one to settle the evening.
Polk County made that good fortune happen.
Matias Akers’ deep push into Elkin territory drew the attention of the Buckin’ Elks defense and left Cole Pereira open and alone in the penalty area. Once Pereira gathered a pass from Akers, he made the most of the opportunity, drilling a line drive just out of the reach of Elkin goalkeeper Thomas McComb and giving the Wolverines a 1-0 1A playoff victory at G.M. Tennant Stadium.
The Wolverines (8-2-1) lived to fight another day, and that day will be Thursday, when Polk County hosts Thomas Jefferson in a second-round match. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. and the game will also be streamed live on the NFHS Network.
Thomas Jefferson (11-2-1) defeated Swain 5-2 in its first-round match, a game undoubtely devoid of the prevalent nail-biting in Tennant’s stands.
“As a team, we kept the ball, and I told them it was going to fall,” said Polk County head coach Josh Trejo. “And if it didn’t fall, I was gonna say it’s just the worst luck ever, because we had chance after chance.
“That’s a big win right there. . . We’ve done the hard work and we beat a really good team.”
Elkin (9-3-1) indeed provided a challenge from the opening whistle. The Elks were especially sound defensively, keeping their end of the field packed with white shirts and turning aside each Polk charge.
The Wolverines began to up their offensive pressure in the second half, nearly getting a goal early on as a Cameron Greve header from the penalty area hit the crossbar and kicked away. McComb stopped several other Polk threats, the Wolverines had a couple of breakaways where entry passes were just out of reach and the deadlock continued on into the final minutes.
Elkin nearly broke the scoreless tie in those waning moments, a long drive punched away at the last moment by Polk goalkeeper Grayson Ball. That led to the first overtime and the moment that settled the match.
Polk’s Luke Becker stopped an Elkin forward in the Wolverines’ end and rolled a pass ahead to Akers, who dribbled more than 30 yards, hounded by three Elk defenders, before stopping and sending a lateral pass to Pereira. The Polk sophomore corralled the pass, moved in eight yards from the goal and hit the low shot that just passed McComb’s outstretched foot and settled into the left corner of the net.
Game, set, match as far as Trejo was concerned, even through 1:22 remained in the first overtime period and 10 more minutes awaited in the second. Ball and a defense of Becker, Braxton Edwards, Gaige Lewis and Adam Kehrer made certain their coach would be correct.
“We went into overtime, I thought this could probably go to penalty kicks because we were back and forth and we couldn’t buy a goal,” Trejo said. “But then when we got one, all right, we’ve won this. I was really confident because, like I said, we kept possession most of the time.
“All they kept doing was playing the long ball, and hat’s all we practiced on because I knew they were going to play the long ball. I told them at practice, Gaige, you’re going to be the first one to the ball. Adam, you’re going to be the second one. And that’s just what we did. The whole back line in general did a fantastic job.”
Another challenge will await Polk County in a Thomas Jefferson team that Trejo knows well, having coached several of the Gryphons during club season. It is a test that the Polk head coach looks forward to taking if, for no other reason, just to continue his time with a team that he says has shown so much heart this season.
“I am just extremely blessed and extremely happy for them,” Trejo said.
“We have really worked, and I know it’s been up and down this whole soccer season with the whole coronavirus and being quarantined and everything. But they had the heart, and I’m very, very proud of them.”