Red Devils Ride Momentum Into Playoffs

Newton-Conover started the season with a loss to third-ranked Shelby. That loss turned into seven straight losses and eventually into losing its first 11 of 14. But that losing turned into winning late in the 2010 season and eventually led to a playoff berth in the 2-A West.

The Red Devils finished fifth in the Catawba Valley 2-A Athletic Conference with a 7-6-1 conference record, and they captured the conference’s last playoff spot.

“We started playing more like a team, which was big for us,” senior John Reid said. “As the season went on, we got more familiar with each other and what each other could do. We started to trust each other more.”

The Red Devils play Wednesday against Black Mountain Owen — the top team from the Western Highlands 1-A/2-A — in the first round of the 2-A West playoffs. Owen beat Newton-Conover 2-1 in the second round of the 2008 playoffs.

“This is just another game,” Newton-Conover coach Angelo Palozzi said. “They are high school kids just like us. They’re a No. 1 seed, and we’re a No. 5 seed. What we did in the regular season really doesn’t matter. It’s just one game.

“I keep reminding them about the year we won the state title. The more talented team was Cardinal Gibbons. Our guys came out and played with heart. You got to throw your body out there in front of anything that comes your way.”

Newton-Conover’s first win of the season came Sept. 8 against Maiden.
The first win of the season over Maiden, however, came with the loss of starting sophomore forward Chandler Johnson. Johnson suffered a season-ending injury during the match when he broke two bones in his left ankle.

Losing Johnson forced Newton-Conover to juggle its lineup. Newton-Conover tried about 20 combinations before finding his current group.

“Now we have our starting 11, and I think guys are more settled in now,” Palozzi said. “You need to be able to play together a while to feel comfortable with each other. I think that’s where everyone is now.”

Forward Christian Marinero stepped up to take Johnson’s place as a big forward up front. Marinero scored six goals this season on a team-high 53 shots. Franklin Wepner is another player stepping into Johnson’s goal-scoring role. The freshman moved from midfield to forward and scored a team-high 10 goals this season.

“It was just right place, right time I guess,” Wepner said, adding that the team’s additional passing also led to his late-season surge.

After that opening 14-match stretch, a playoff appearance was in jeopardy. The Red Devils beat Maiden again Oct. 4, and things started from there. Newton-Conover tied Bandys 4-4 two days later, and that turned into a 4-2-1 season-closing stretch.

“It’s a big confidence booster,” junior Lucas Hernandez said. “Our team started pulling themselves together, and it’s just making our season better. Hopefully, we’ll do well in the playoffs by taking the momentum from the last couple of games and move ourselves up.”

The Red Devils lost to South Iredell and West Caldwell, the top two teams in the CVAC, in their final two matches of the season. They played a close match Oct. 26 against the CVAC-champion Warriors, but they lost 1-0 after the game was called because of the tornadoes and thunderstorms in the area.

A rigorous non-conference schedule primed the Red Devils for their late-season push for the postseason. They started the season with a 5-0 loss to Shelby, the third-ranked 2-A team in the state. The Red Devils also lost matches against Northwestern 3-A/4-A powers Hickory and Hibriten. Hernandez said losing so much in the tough non-conference schedule is tough on the players’ confidence level, but it was good for the team to go against the tough opponents.

“Beating somebody 10-0 doesn’t do anything for you,” Palozzi said. “We took some beatings, but a lot of those were close games. I think it makes them understand they could play with those teams. I think that’s going to help in the playoffs.”