SNOW HILL — Los Jets’ 20th anniversary season — and its magical moments, impressive streaks and community-wide celebrations — came to an end last week, just shy of making history.
A recipe that included a two-hour road trip on a short week, paired with a hungry Greene Central squad, came together last Wednesday night to serve the Jets their first loss of the season, knocking out Chatham County’s lone remaining playoff team in the state quarterfinals.
The No. 6 Jets (20-1-1) fell to the No. 2 Greene Central Rams (24-1) in the Elite Eight of the NCHSAA 2A men’s soccer state playoffs, 3-1, with the game having been pushed up a day — with just one day of rest after both teams’ third-round matchups — to avoid possible rain forecast for last Thursday.
The loss puts an end to the Jets’ undefeated season, with the team’s only previous blemish coming in a 1-1 tie with the Asheboro Blue Comets in the second game of the year.
In the 10th minute of Wednesday’s contest, Jets junior Zander Ocampo gave his team a 1-0 lead on an acrobatic goal off of a free kick opportunity. But it’d be the last score of the game for a J-M team that struggled offensively down the stretch.
“I think we started on fire against them, we really put them back on their heels,” Paul Cuadros, the Jets’ longtime head coach, told the News + Record. “We scored the first goal and we had the opportunity to get more, I would say, but we didn’t convert on them.”
The Rams proceeded to score three unanswered goals — one off of a free kick, one off of a penalty kick and the third off of a corner kick — over the next 70 minutes, putting the Jets in a hole they simply couldn’t fly out of.
And it all started with a slight bit of controversy.
With just 21 seconds remaining in the first half, Rams junior midfielder Ariel Nunez scored on a free kick from about 20 yards out. The shot flew high into the air before curving sharply into the right corner of the net as a majority of players stood in place on the field.
Yet, as the Greene Central players, including Nunez, ran toward their benches in celebration, a gaggle of Jets surrounded the official who’d been in charge of awarding the free kick.
Their complaint? They said he never blew his whistle to signify the ball was live — hence why Nunez’s shot caught the Jets entirely off guard as they looked to still be setting up their wall at the top of the penalty area.
“They equalized on a goal that was a tricky play,” Cuadros said of the Rams’ first goal. “Our goalkeeper was just setting up his wall when their main player (Nunez) just kicked it. And the ref had not blown the whistle. The ref had not controlled the game like the previous game (against N.C. School of Science & Math) had been controlled. … It caught us off guard and equalized, which was really crappy for us because we felt like they hadn’t really earned a goal.”
Jordan-Matthews' Armando Rocha (11) dribbles the ball past a Greene Central defender in the Jets' 3-1, fourth-round playoff loss to the Rams last Wednesday in Snow Hill. The loss was the first time all season J-M allowed more than one goal in a single game. / Staff photo by Laieke Abebe
In the second half, Nunez helped the Rams take the lead on a penalty kick that he quickly slotted past J-M goalkeeper Ricardo Rocha, who incorrectly predicted the location of the ball.
Then, just eight minutes later, the Rams scored the dagger on a perfect corner kick from Nunez to senior Jose Morquecho, who knocked it into the net on a header and effectively ended the Jets’ shot at a semifinal appearance.
Despite allowing three goals on the night — easily the most J-M’s allowed in a game all season, having never allowed opponents to score more than one up to that point — Cuadros said he felt his defense looked solid.
“In soccer, you earn goals by breaking down defenses and scoring, and you can certainly get goals through free kicks, trickery and things like that, but that’s on us for not having the situational awareness to prevent that,” Cuadros said. “I never felt like Greene Central broke through the midfield, broke us down, got behind the defense and went one-on-one with the keeper and forced him to make a save. That never really happened.”
J-M had its opportunities on offense, including a left-side shot by senior co-captain Alexis Ibarra that hooked just narrowly past the far post that, had it gone in, would have been a “game killer,” according to Cuadros.
“We would have gone up 2-0,” Cuadros said. “A shot like that just crushes you.”
While the Jets have looked nearly flawless at times this season — posting 10 shutouts and 14 games scoring at least six goals during their 22-game campaign — their struggles against the Rams came as no surprise.
Coming off of an intense third-round matchup, Cuadros said travel and fatigue may have played a factor in the Jets’ lack of polish.
Third-seeded NCSSM played J-M to the wire in Durham just two days earlier, where the Jets needed two goals in overtime to compensate for a late score by the Unicorns and advance to the Elite Eight with a 3-1 victory.
Then, after playing 100 minutes against the Unicorns on the road, the Jets, despite being the lone undefeated team in the 2A East Region, were forced to make the 123-mile trek to Snow Hill for their matchup against the one-loss Rams.
The minutes played — and miles traveled — start to add up this late in the season, said Cuadros.
“I have to confess that I think Monday night’s game against Science & Math took a lot out of us,” he said. “Back-to-back travel games are always really difficult to do. We had a couple of those during the season, but at the playoff level, they’re super intense games. … Trying to win on the road is really difficult, especially if there’s a lot of distance.”
The NCHSAA seeds teams based on RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) ratings, taken from MaxPreps, which primarily takes into account a team’s strength of schedule.
Since the Jets’ newly aligned conference, the Mid-Carolina 1A/2A, consisted of just five teams this season — including Chatham’s Seaforth High School, consisting of only freshmen and sophomores and which went winless in the conference, and another which played just 10 total games due to COVID-19 issues (Cummings) — their RPI ranked them No. 6 in the 2A East despite their undefeated record.
Hence the team’s playoff road trip.
The Jets’ third-round win over the Unicorns two nights earlier was not only a hard-fought game, but also an emotional one.
With this being the 20th anniversary season of the creation of Los Jets, each moment, goal and win packed an extra special punch for Cuadros, who helped create the team in 2001 and has been its head coach ever since.
But none more than the Jets’ victory against NCSSM.
Along with the overtime finish, for Cuadros, a lot of the emotion came from those who showed up to support the Jets in their Sweet 16 matchup.
“We had maybe 150 or 200 people at that game and it overwhelmed Science & Math because they don’t usually have a visiting crowd like that,” he said. “On the visiting side, we had a couple of bleachers … but there was no way all of those people could sit in those bleachers, so you had people standing along the sideline.”
Cuadros said that the large contingent of fans began wandering a little too close to the field, so he went over to tell them to move back so they didn’t interfere with the game.
“And as I made my way down that line, I could see all these faces of kids that I coached, boys and girls, over 20 years ago, from various years,” Cuadros said. “I saw some from 15 years ago, some from 10 years ago, some from five or two years ago, even, and it was like taking a trip through time with these faces and it was incredible. It was an incredible moment that I’ll never forget.”
The Jets may not have capped off their 20th anniversary season with a state title, but they ended with a very fitting 20 wins on the year, along with an Elite Eight finish, conference title and undefeated regular season on its resume.
In short, Cuadros said, this season was a resounding success.
“The journey that was this year, it was a lot of fun, I enjoyed myself,” Cuadros said. “This year’s squad was a delight. They’re all a bunch of great kids, all dedicated. … These kids were different, so they were a joy to coach.”
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.