FOUR OAKS — For the second season in a row, the Cleveland girls soccer team wrapped up conference play with an unblemished record.
The Rams’ concluded their dominant run through the Two Rivers 3A Conference in its inaugural season with a 4-0 defeat at South Johnston Monday, Cleveland’s sixth shutout over a Two Rivers opponent in 10 tries.
After going undefeated in the Eastern Carolina Conference a season ago, the Rams outscored their Two Rivers opponents this season by a combined 56-5.
“We just tried to pick up from last year,” Cleveland assistant coach Megan Morris said. “We were undefeated in conference last year, so it was a big deal for us to do it again because everybody was after us from day one.”
Cassidy McNierney led the way with a hat trick and Emily Truelove tallied a goal and two assists as the Rams improved to 12-4-1 on the season with the perfect 10-0 mark in conference to claim the league title.
Thanks to some solid play from senior goalkeeper Shaina Teats, South Johnston kept the game close, trailing by just two goals at halftime.
In the 52nd minute, however, a penetrating run from Truelove down the left wing ended when she crossed the ball back to McNierney who posted her third goal of the game with a strike to the near post.
Truelove then finished the scoring six minutes later when she split through the Trojans’ defense unassisted and found the back of the net for the 30th time this season.
One of the strengths of this season’s squad has been the unselfish play of its attacking players.
Truelove clocks in with 30 goals and 18 assists, but fellow strikers Courtney Morris (13 goals, 11 assists) and McNierney (11 goals, eight assists) make it more difficult for opposing teams looking to shut down one scorer.
“We work really well as a team.” McNierney said. “Every game, everybody tried really hard and that’s why we’ve won every time because we play as a team.”
As dominant as the Cleveland offense has been in conference, its defense has similarly been outstanding in its organization and being up to the challenge to turn away most counterattacks opponents have thrown its way.
Briele Cochran, Sarah Ginn, Alexis McLeod and Brittany Preston along with goalkeeper Katelyn Lowery have been solid along the back all year long, which has allowed the Rams midfield to push up and join the attack without worry.
For McLeod, a senior, the team’s stingy defense has come as a result of a lot of hard work.
“When we started my freshman year, we got killed the majority of the time,” recalled McLeod, who still thinks the five goals allowed in Two Rivers play this year were too much. “But each year we’ve just gotten better and better on defense because we work very well together and we know how to communicate.
“It’s been a great way to finish four years, definitely.”
Cleveland hopes to extend its season further as the Rams will look to improve upon a first round exit from a season ago, as they will focus their attention to the 3A state playoffs.