Red Devils ready for playoff run

Heading into the playoffs Wednesday, the Newton-Conover soccer team sees shades of 2007.

The Red Devils (20-2-1), who won the state championship that season, are experiencing a bounce-back 2011 campaign.

After finishing last year with an 8-14-1 record, coach Angelo Palozzi said the players re-dedicated themselves to the game.

“Our captains came up to me in the winter last year and wanted to get things going,” Palozzi said. “They got a lot of the kids together, started working, playing a lot and getting in the weight room.”

Helping the Red Devils offensively this season is forward Chandler Johnson, who returns after a broken ankle in 2010.

Johnson has scored 34 of the team’s 93 goals on the season.

“I couldn’t do it without our backs,” Johnson said. “Our defense has been finding our midfields’ feet. Through the midfield, we just play the ball over top and use our speed like we do. That’s all we do. We just use the speed we have to score goals.”

Defense has been another strong suit. Of their 20 wins this season, 12 have come via shutout.

“We’ve returned two starters on defense from last year,” said goalkeeper Hunter Nestor. “The other two players that came in, I’ve played defense in club soccer with before. It’s been a good year. We’ve all been playing together since freshman year. We just have this chemistry.”

At first, it appeared Newton-Conover’s season wouldn’t be as successful as it’s been.

The Red Devils opened up the season with a huge victory against current fifth-ranked 3A team Hickory.

Following that win, N-C tied against East Lincoln, fell 6-1 to Shelby and 5-2 to St. Stephens during a span of eight games.

“It wasn’t uplifting playing those teams and losing that bad,” said N-C defender Gabe Crider. “We pulled together through it and helped each other out. It was definitely tough getting through the first part of the season. It put us down a little bit, but we got through it.”

Since that time, the Red Devils have outscored their opponents 60-11, all of which came in conference games.

The team’s record during that 14-game stretch — 14-0.

“We knew South Iredell and West Caldwell were going to be good,” Nestor said. “I really didn’t see us winning conference. Once we beat South Iredell, 3-0, and once we beat West Caldwell, I started seeing it. We’ve had this talent all year. We just had to put the pieces together to get there.”

Now, N-C faces West Davidson in the first round of the playoffs at home on Wednesday.

“They are a good, big, physical team,” Palozzi said of West Davidson. “We can’t look to Saturday’s second round games. We have to focus on Wednesday night and leave everything out here.”