APEX — For years, Apex soccer players cut their hair into weird designs before the first round of the state 4A playoffs as a way to ease tension.
But in its first-round matchup with Wilmington Hoggard on Wednesday, Apex fell 2-1.
“It was just a stress-reliever before playoffs,” Apex senior captain Robert Smith said of the haircuts. “Unfortunately, we won’t be able to keep them for long.”
Smith scored the Cougars’ lone goal, but it came after Hoggard had built a 2-0 lead. The score triggered a frenetic final eight minutes, but Apex (16-5) couldn’t get the ball into the net.
“The first half showed a story where they were playing very loose, and we were a little tense and weren’t as aggressive to the ball as we’ve always been,” Apex coach Kevin Todd said. “The little things that we had done throughout the whole season seemed to disappear in that first half.
“There’s a sense of urgency that you have to have, and whatever the reason – nerves or whatever – it just didn’t manifest itself in the first half.”
After a scoreless first half, the Viking midfielder Logan Loftin banged in a header for a 1-0 lead in the 51st minute. Hoggard (17-4-1) went up 2-0 on a Joel Labombard goal with just over nine minutes remaining.
Smith’s goal trickled off Hoggard keeper Austin Bagley, and the Cougars continued to press forward. But the damage had been done.
“Communication going forward wasn’t very good,” Smith said. “We weren’t very clinical, we didn’t finish our chances. We didn’t really attack as a team, so it kind of fell apart in the end. We started to get something going, but it was too late.
“I don’t think it was something we hadn’t seen all year because we play high-intensity teams in our conference. I don’t know. We were just caught up in the moment about playoffs. We didn’t really calm down and play like we usually do.”
The game pitted two of the best teams in the state in the first round, a consequence of Apex’s forfeiture of three games for having one of its players’ physicals expire during the season. The Cougars likely would have faced a lower seed without the forfeits.
Hoggard, seeded 23rd, was seeded low due to its wild-card berth. But the Vikings were in contention for the conference title until the final week.
“We had a really good year,” Smith said. “We kinda got messed up by the forfeits throughout the season, because personally I feel like we should’ve been conference champions. That definitely moved us around in the (playoff) bracket.
“But we still had a good season. We just couldn’t finish it off on the right foot.”