RALEIGH — Jake Grieco limped gingerly to midfield with his Apex team to receive the inaugural Wake County Cup trophy Saturday.
The Apex junior sat out much of the match’s second half with ice strapped to his knee, after colliding with Sanderson goalkeeper Walker Lozaw as he knocked in the winning goal in the 47th minute.
Apex (8-0, 2-0 SWAC) topped Sanderson (8-3, 4-0 Cap 8), 2-1, in a tightly contested match to cap the six-team tournament hosted by Cardinal Gibbons.
Grieco said the Cougars’ halftime speech from coach Kevin Todd was the difference-maker in the team’s hardest match of the tournament. The usually laid-back Todd pumped the team up to win the early-season title.
“It’s great for them to be able to experience something here at this point of the season that meant so much,” Todd said. “Just being under pressure with something more than just one game on the line, because there was a title, gives you something that you can draw back on, a little well of experience that you can look at and say, ‘You know, we’ve been here.’”
Apex scored first, in the 25th minute, off a free kick by Sean Bowman; Sanderson equalized in the 35th minute, when Grayson Gregory scored on a breakaway from midfield.
Gregory’s goal was the first allowed by the Cougars in the tournament. Apex topped Franklin Academy 9-0 and Heritage 3-0 in group play.
“We came together as a group early on, and for us this is big step in going further into our season,” Bowman said. “This kind of helps us jump-start and gives us a little more confidence going on.”
Sanderson kept the pressure on until the final buzzer. A straight-on shot by the Spartans in the 76th minute was stopped by Apex goalkeeper Brian Lewis, and a Spartans free kick from 45 yards out also was stopped, in the 77th.
The Spartans had been in tight games throughout the tournament, needing extra time to defeat Garner, 4-3, and Cardinal Gibbons, 2-1, in group play before making it to the championship match.
“We played Garner the first time, which is a really good team, and squeaked by. We played a great Cardinal Gibbons team, squeaked by, and tonight played a great Apex team,” said Sanderson coach Todd Worley. “The competition level was great in all three games and our guys hung in there when things weren’t going well, and they fought through a lot of stuff.
“Apex deserved the game tonight, but we played with them, and it could have been the opposite also, but I thought it was a really good game.”
Both coaches agreed the tight match was a perfect end to the tournament’s first go-round.
“When this cup started, this is what we wanted,” Worley said. “To have two great teams fight it through. Apex plays the best of the best, and we try to play the best.”
“It was a tight game, so we couldn’t ask for any better experience to launch us back into our conference, because that’s our focus now,” Todd said.
The tournament’s third-place match went down to the wire earlier Saturday evening, with Garner’s Tom Dinka scoring the game’s only goal with less than three minutes remaining. Heritage finished fourth.
Both teams head back into their respective leagues Monday.
The Wake County Cup, which began play in August, featured a staggered schedule so teams also competed in conference play between tournament matches.
“That was really special to be the first team on the trophy…because this event is just going to grow and become more significant,” Todd said. “It’s special, and it will be even more special as time goes by.”