Pack draws closer to clinching third-straight EPC title

Published 8:56 pm Tuesday, October 20, 2015

DAVID CUCCHIARA | DAILY NEWS SOLID STRIKE: Washington celebrates after a stellar goal by midfielder Freddy Jimenez (No. 9) in the second half of Tuesday’s win over North Pitt.

SOLID STRIKE: Washington celebrates after a stellar goal by midfielder Freddy Jimenez (No. 9) in the second half of Tuesday’s win over North Pitt.

From the initial whistle to the final bench-clearing substitution, the Washington soccer team played possession soccer, capitalized on most prime scoring opportunities and took one more step towards locking up a third-consecutive Eastern Plains Conference championship on Tuesday with a commanding 7-2 victory over North Pitt (11-2-1, 5-2 EPC) at Choppy Wagner Stadium.

Mathematically, the win over the second-place Panthers puts the Pam Pack two games up in the standings. A win on Thursday against Southwest Edgecombe, a team that has managed just two wins this season, officially clinches the title, as Washington has yet to drop a conference match in three years.

“It puts us in a really good place,” said head coach Jim Kozuch after the game. “Another win and we clinch the conference, so that will set us up for at least two home games in the playoffs. It’s also going to give me some time to get other guys some playing time and give my starters some rest. Hopefully we can rest up from a couple of bumps and bruises we have and try to put something together in the next few weeks.”

Following a sloppy Oct. 1 matchup brought on by unusually heavy rainfall, a 5-0 Washington win, the second meeting was just as messy, but in an entirely different fashion. When the dust settled, the referee had handed out eight yellow cards, including a season-high four for the Pam Pack, though both teams were able to avoid any ejections. And the gritty play started early.

“This is definitely our rivalry here,” Kozuch said. “These guys all play with each other. They fire themselves up, but I think in a game like this the most important thing is to try to get the first goal. Momentum goes a long way. Once we got one we were able to roll from there.”

After just two minutes of play, the Pam Pack struck first. Jose Gamboa ignited a breakaway with a hard-hit through ball to a sprinting Kyle Hodges, who got behind the defense and tapped in an easy goal.

Four minutes later, on back-to-back possessions, it was two throws from defender Ben McKeithan that propelled the Pack to an early 3-0 lead — one that was redirected by Erik Ruiz, the other finding an unmarked Hodges far post.

With 24 minutes to go in the half, goalie William Tate picked up a rare assist, firing off a 70-yard goal kick and hitting midfielder Freddy Jimenez in stride. Jimenez finished the one-on-one opportunity, putting Washington up 4-0.

But after some frustration from the North Pitt backline, the Panthers finally got an answer on one of the nicer goals of the contest. Junior midfielder Alan Federico corralled a deflected ball on the edge of the box, took a few steps and blasted a shot in the left-upper 90 to narrow the deficit to three.

An own goal with nine minutes remaining off of another McKeithan throw-in, however, quickly widened the Washington lead back to four. To make matters worse for North Pitt, a handball in the box set Jimenez up for a penalty kick in stoppage time. He finished with a hard-hit shot on the ground to the left of the keeper.

Despite the 6-1-halftime lead, Kozuch saw some deficiencies in his defense against what is usually a very strong Panthers attack.

“Defense is a small project,” he said. “We know we can score some goals, but down the line there are going to be some 2-0 games, 1-0 games. Every goal counts. Now is the time to learn.”

Eight minutes into the second half, off the outside of his foot, Jimenez one-timed a defensive clearance and bent a shot in the right-upper 90 for the final Washington goal, and an impressive one at that.

“I saw the ball going up, I thought that he could score and he did,” Kozuch said. “We’ve put up a lot of goals this year and we have to keep going, bottom line. Obviously down the road there are teams that will try to man mark our guys. If our guys do a good job of spreading the ball out, we’re confident they can score too.”

North Pitt’s Federico added to his tally in stoppage time on a scramble in front of the net, but it would come in a losing effort.

Washington finished with 17 shots to North Pitt’s 10. Jimenez notched his fifth hat trick of the season.

With the win, the Pam Pack improves to 18-1 (7-0 EPC). Kick off against the Cougars (2-11-3, 2-5 EPC) is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. at Choppy Wagner Stadium.