State champions! Manteo women’s soccer team wins 2A competition

Published 3:18 pm Tuesday, June 6, 2023

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The Manteo High School women’s soccer team won the 2A State Championship game Saturday against Wheatmore at UNC-Greensboro.

The Lady Redskins were behind at halftime 0-1 at the N.C. High School Athletic Association 2A title match on June 3, but came back in a phenomenal second half for a 5-3 victory, ending the reigning state champions’ 49-game winning streak.

“We started the game doing everything we had talked about,” head coach Ralph Cleaver said of the first half. “They were executing their game plan. We were dominating the game and controlling the tempo, we just weren’t getting much on them. In the huge college-sized field I think we hit a little wall and got away from what we were doing successfully.”

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“There are acceptable ways to lose a game, but being tired or hot is not an acceptable way to lose,” Cleaver told his team during halftime. “We’re going to keep battling. We’re not going to quit. We’re going to give it our all.”

Manteo’s Kiley Eckard evened the score in the second half, and it was back and forth play for the remainder of the game, with Kenzie Flynn scoring two points, Wheatmore coming back with another two, Eckard scoring one more, and Abby Calvio scoring the final point with three minutes to spare in the game.

“We outworked them, we outhustled them, we showed heart. Those girls willed their way to that win,” Cleaver said.

The team, which is primarily made up of sophomores and juniors, worked hard throughout the year by participating in soccer camps, Storm training and fall sports like cross country to be in top notch condition to win the championships.

“They did their part in the off season to give us an opportunity to make this,” said Cleaver, who has coached the women’s team since 2019, and the men’s team since 2015, first as assistant coach, then as head coach in 2017. He teaches AVID electives and coordinates the AVID program at MHS.

Once the season started, the girls began each practice with a one mile run and then broke up to work on passing and possession drills. Along with head coach Cleaver, assistant coaches John Eric Cleaver, Tony Calvio and Ryan Caruso worked with girls individually to improve their skills, resulting in a very well-rounded team.

“We did not have a weakness on the field. The difference in this championship game is that we had talent in every position,” he said. Though Wheatmore had several exceptional players, Cleaver said they knew that coming into the game. But, he told his team, “There’s 11 of us and 2 of them. We can beat them in the end.”

He said he encouraged the team to see the championship game as an opportunity. Though their opponents hadn’t lost in two years, “they haven’t played us yet,” Cleaver reminded the Lady Redskins. “It’s our opportunity to go out and beat a really good team.”

Throughout the season, there were two games that were confidence builders for the team, and for the community. The first was the win against First Flight High School, which has had a historically impressive women’s soccer team. After a tied game 1-1, the schools had a rematch with the Redskins where they dominated 2-0. “That game reset us to get that belief set back in,” Cleaver said.

A win against Beaufort’s East Carteret was a turning point for Manteo. “That team had put us out [of the playoffs] the last two seasons. We knew we had to get a little revenge. We annihilated them 11-2. That made a huge statement to anyone who hadn’t bought in and believed in us yet,” he said.

The Outer Banks community rallied around the team ahead of the big game. Businesses cheered the team on signboards and posters, the whole high school came out to see the team onto the bus, and Manteo Elementary School students lined up to high-five the girls. The Pioneer Theater live-streamed the game during the Dare Days celebration, and the Manteo Police Department escorted the team home after the big win, as seen in this video from Alfred Jackson:

The community is also encouraged to come out and support the team during a parade set for Wednesday, June 7 beginning at 6 p.m. The parade route will start at Manteo High School, go along Wingina and Budleigh before stopping at the Dare County Arts Council, then Sir Walter Raleigh before heading back to Manteo High School.

“The community support has probably been the coolest part throughout the whole season,” Cleaver said.

As for the win, the head coach said it was “surreal.”

“I felt like we’d been on the cusp for several years. We’d been working throughout the year to get ourselves in that position, and when it finally happened it didn’t seem real. I guess I’d gotten used to some kind of heartbreak at the end of the season. Only one team can win. To experience this was a sort of jubilation. It’s something I’ll definitely remember for a long time.”