Gray Stone rallies to claim school’s first soccer state championship

Published 4:31 pm Sunday, November 19, 2023

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Gray Stone Day School opened the doors to its high school in 2002, playing NCHSAA 1A varsity sports soon after opening.

Since opening, the Knights’ men’s soccer program has won multiple conference championships but it never advanced past the third round of the state playoffs until this season.

Gray Stone faced Hobbton Saturday afternoon at MacPherson Stadium in Greensboro for the 2023 1A crown.

Trailing by a goal midway through the first half, the Knights rallied and earned the school’s first men’s soccer state title 3-1.

The 2023 Gray Stone soccer team is the school’s second overall team championship in men’s sports, with the cross-country team winning the 1A title in 2009.

Desmond Bullard, the all-time leading goal scorer in Gray Stone men’s soccer history, earned Most Valuable Player honors for the Knights with two goals in the game. The senior midfielder finished his high school career with 114 career goals, including the finals.

Arkyn Pathel added the go-ahead goal for Gray Stone (21-2-2) in the second half, his 19th of the season.

Knights head coach Brad Harrington, who played for the Knights from 2005-2009, said for the 11 seniors on the team, losing in the third round last season to Bradford Prep left “a bad taste in their mouths.”

Harrington said the seniors, having played tough opponents like Christ The King and Pine Lake Prep in previous seasons, showed them championship-level opponents.

“(The players) knew and were ready to meet that level this year…I’m just super proud.”

Hobbton (23-4-1) took the lead in the 19th minute. Ricardo Diaz sent a corner kick into the box where junior Ever Reyes headed the ball into the lower left corner of the net.

Trailing 1-0, the Knights did not change their strategy and stayed patient, according to Bullard.

“I knew we just needed to keep playing our game and pick our moments like we have all year,” Bullard said.

Eleven minutes later, the moment game for the Knights. Michael Burleson sent a pass between two Wildcat defenders to Bullard. He launched a line drive shot approximately 15 yards outside the penalty area, which curled into the top right corner of the goal.

“We had a special moment with the game-tying goal, which was exactly what we needed. That momentum carried us the rest of the game,” Bullard said.

Bullard said he and Burleson played club soccer together having “played countless games together over the years. We just made eye contact, and he knew where I was going. He played it to me perfectly, and I took one touch and just hit like I have a million times in my life.”

Gray Stone had trailed in previous playoff games, including going down a goal at Mount Airy in the fourth round. However, Harrington said, as they had in the fourth round, the Knights rallied quickly from the one-goal deficit to go into halftime tied.

“I just told them, ‘It’s the same thing.’ Hobbton had not trailed in the playoffs yet. They don’t know what it’s like to go down and fight back,” Harrington said.

Gray Stone took the lead for good in the 51st minute. Bullard took a long shot, which was stopped by keeper Anthony Sandoval, but Pethel found the rebound and scored.

“I was happy. I saw the rebound, and I saw my chance,” Pethel said. “I always trust my teammates, like Coach always says…after that, the momentum of the game changed.”

The Knights added an insurance goal seven minutes after taking the lead. Donovan Christlieb sent a corner kick to the far post. Bullard threw his leg high in the air and knocked it in.

“I kept my eye on the ball,” Bullard said. “It was going back post, and it looked like one player that had a chance to get it. It went over his head, and I knew I needed to direct it goalwards.”

Winning the state title in his last game “is really emotional,” Bullard said.

“It’s our last game, but if it’s going to end, this is quite the way to do it. It’s a special moment. I’m really happy for the guys, for Coach Harrington. He deserved it, coming close so many times.”

On the win, Pethel said coming into the game “a lot of people doubted us,” but added winning the title felt great.

“The last couple of years, we have been working very hard to get to this place,” Pethel said.

Harrington said in his seven years as Gray Stone’s head coach he has had many special players, including Desmond’s older brother, Judson. He said Desmond learned a lot playing center back as a freshman before stepping into the midfield the following season.

“He’s grown as a playmaker for us and just been able to get all of the guys involved, which makes us a more dangerous team,” Harrington said. “The thing that makes Desmond special is his drive to continuously want to get better…that is carried over to the rest of our guys and led them to this point and this opportunity.”

As a former Gray Stone player, Harrington said winning the title “means more to me than most people would think. This is a hugely special group, but I credit all the other six teams up to this point. They’ve been knocking on the door, setting that foundation.”

Having all 25 Gray Stone players experience winning a state title, Harrington said, “to be able to give it to them as a coach, it is the best feeling in the world.”

About Charles Curcio

Charles Curcio has served as the sports editor of the Stanly News & Press for more than 16 years and has written numerous news and feature storeis as well. He was awarded the NCHSAA Tim Stevens Media Representative of the Year and named CNHI Sports Editor of the Year in 2014. He has also won an award from Boone Newspapers, and has won four North Carolina Press Association awards.

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