Topsail football shows growth as candidate for Middle East Conference

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HAMPSTEAD – The progress of Topsail’s men’s soccer program was evident in the wake of a 3-2 overtime loss to Ashley (7-2, 4-1 Mideastern) on Tuesday night.

The Pirates’ previous iterations (5-2, 3-1) would have drawn a serious moral victory from this narrow defeat. Instead, disappointment was the only obvious emotion.

Topsail, along with all three Brunswick County teams, have played Wilmington Schools second fiddle in the men’s football landscape, but the Pirates are changing that narrative this year. On Thursday, the Pirates made history by defeating Hoggard 2-1 in overtime for their first-ever victory over the Vikings.

“We’ve always been in games like this knowing it would be very difficult for us to win,” said Topsail head coach Rob Kelly. “This year the training has been so good and we have played all year with a lot of confidence. Getting this victory in the end was a big step in the right direction.”

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Topsail's James Manning appears to pass Ashley in Hampstead, NC on Tuesday, September 28, 2021.  [MATT BORN/STARNEWS]

The Pirates don’t have to look too far to find success in the Middle East Conference. In 2017, Topsail went 10-4, sweeping New Hanover and Laney in the regular season.

However, this season has proven to be more of a flash in the pan rather than a sign of things to come. Topsail went 7-15 in the league over the next two years.

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There is optimism that this success may be lasting for the Pirates. Topsail is starting three freshmen and two sophomores, with just four seniors on the list. The junior university team has 20 first year students.

And Kelly points out that this junior varsity team is the lifeblood of the program. He has confidence in the college’s junior coaching team, including Josh Timbers, who was All-American at Wake Forest and won an Olympic bronze medal with the US futsal team in 2000.

“It’s really exciting the kind of development that we have throughout the program. I have no doubt this team can be really good in a few years and keep that momentum going,” said Kelly.

As for this year’s squad, Topsail is led by a dominant midfielder. Tanner Kelly is the offensive orchestrator, while Will Bigham serves as the defensive destroyer.

At the top, James Manning is the most reliable goalscorer, but Maddox Kelly is a fluid operator with the ball at his feet in creative spaces. Defensemen Wyatt Holly and Alex West are good passer who set up Topsail’s possession-based style.

“There are two big keys to his game. The trapping of the ball and precise passing,” said coach Kelly. “If you can do those two things, you can do it. We have a lot of talented kids who can do these things, so I want to play that kind of style instead of throwing long balls over it every time.”

The next step for Topsail is to see it all through. After the emotional highs of Thursday’s victory over Hoggard, the Pirates led 2-1 over Ashley with three minutes remaining. Late goals from Brodie Deutsch and Alberto Garzon gave the Screaming Eagles the victory.

The loss is a missed opportunity in the NCHSAA 4A playoff race, but it’s also another lesson to be learned from this period of growth for Topsail.

“Tonight has been disappointing, but I’m going to tell the guys now how important it is to finish games,” said coach Kelly. “If we had finished the game tonight we would still be unbeaten in the conference. It’s something to work for.”

Journalist Jackson Fuller can be reached at [email protected] or 910-343-2262.

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