Pam Pack tops North Johnston, ties atop conference

Published 11:35 pm Monday, October 17, 2016

Washington knew what it had to do on Monday night when North Johnston visited. The Panthers bested the Pam Pack in overtime on Oct. 4 to earn the top spot in the 2-A Eastern Plains Conference.

The Pam Pack knew a win would force a tiebreaker game to determine the best team in the league. It knew it needed the victory, but getting it against such a stout opponent would be quite the challenge. On top of that, the team had to mentally and physically overcome all the downtime caused by Hurricane Matthew.

“Coming off our first loss of the season two weeks ago then sitting out for a week, I really wasn’t sure what state we were going to be in,” Pam Pack coach Jim Kozuch said. “It’s awesome to come home, to get excited, and protect your home turf here.”

The boys did just that with a 6-3 win in front of a sizeable home crowd. They broke through quickly when Eric Ruiz scored two goals in quick succession. He converted on a penalty kick in the sixth minute. Then, in the seventh minute, he ripped a shot from 18 yards out.

Not to be outdone, Pam Pack leading scorer Rob Zerniak netted two of his own by the 11th minute. He cleaned up after one of Ben McKeithan’s patented long throw ins. Alexis Hernandez put North Johnston on the board shortly thereafter, but Zerniak responded for the Pam Pack a minute later. Victor Hernandez sent in a perfect cross from the right side, and Zerniak used his head to put it past goalkeeper Noah Brewer.

“They have a very, very strong defense,” Kozuch said. “You’ve got to fit your players into your team, and what they did was take their 40-goal scorer, who’s obviously the most skilled player on the field, and made him a defender. The kid’s a brick wall.

“So, when we played them, we didn’t pressure enough. They possessed the ball really well. He’s got a great foot and he’s able to feed the forwards from the backline. I saw it and had to make a couple of moves.”

The Panthers found twine twice more before the 20th minute, cutting Washington’s lead to 4-3. They drew a penalty in the box, and Ian Walston converted from the spot. Adolfo Rosales got open on the right side on a throw in to beat Pam Pack keeper Kevin Avilla.

The boys were tested coming in just by how they’d respond to all the time off last week. Now they would be tested by how they’d respond to having their three-goal lead trimmed down to one in a matter of minutes. They tried to add to their lead, but Zerniak and Blake Parker rung shots off the post to Brewer’s right.

North Johnston pressured late in the first half, but Washington clung to its lead entering the break. They came out and added a pair of goals, in addition to 40 minutes of shutdown defense, to snag the win.

The Pam Pack struck twice more in the last 12 minutes of the game to assure the victory. Oscar Espinoza and Tim Anglim both got a piece of another throw in by McKeithan, and it trickled into the net. McKeithan scored the final goal on an indirect kick at point-blank range.