WARSAW —The Chinese calendar celebrated 2020 as the year of the metal rat and 2021 as year of the metal ox.
Yet celebrating boys soccer for the 2020-21 prep year in Duplin County, it’s all about the Tigers.
A fall season was pushed to spring by the COVID-19 pandemic, but James Kenan captured all three individual marquee awards on the Duplin’s Elite All-County honor ledger.
The Tigers captured the ECC title with an unbeaten regular season before bowing out to eventual 2A champ Croatan in the second round of the playoffs.
Junior striker Yahir Benegas beat out a few of his teammates to take the Mr. Soccer crown, while teammate Luis Meraz was the Defensive Player of the Year and the Tigers’ Mitchell Quinn Coach of the Year.
JK led the first team with six players. Wallace-Rose Hill and East Duplin had two apiece.
North Duplin opted to skip soccer during a strangely-arranged and -played season that limited schools to 14 games, meaning a max of just two nonconference matches.
This hurt the development of rebuilding projects at WRH and ED, both of which had underclassmen-stocked rosters.
Duplin’s Elite features the nine best players in the county, regardless of position, although for a few players, defensive skills were essential in inclusion for balance.
Five players were selected for the second team.
Coach of the Year
Quinn made the most of a deeply talented team that will return a bulk of players in the fall.
He is the first-ever Coach of the Year winner in soccer at James Kenan, despite fielding many highly-competitive teams throughout his career.
Only Clinton got to within a goal of the Tigers during the regular season as JK outscored its foes 61-21.
And the playoff brackets were anything but ideal this season as seeds for conference winners in the playoffs were drawn from a hat.
Thus, two of the best teams played in the second round.
There are those who would argue that should have been a matchup for the East Region final.
But that was how the season unfolded for a team that was a joy for JK fans to watch.
The Tigers attacked the goal nonstop and generally won the possession game by a large margin.
If they were not the best team in the east, they had the fastest fowards.
And Quinn trumpeted the offensive rush, relying on his players to use on-the-field judgment, and also giving them freedom to create in groups and individually.
JK, Junior, F
Strong fast and ferocious only begin to describe Yahir Benegas, who becomes the first Tiger to win Mr. Soccer outright. Alexis Paz and East Duplin’s Marcos Reyes were co-winners in 2018.
Benegas, a junior speedster, scored an area-high 29 goals and was so efficient he could overcome slow starts.
He could carry a team, but did not have to with the Tigers.
Yet he was always front and center on a goal keeper.
The best way for the opposition to limit him was to try to rough him up or double-team him.
Neither worked, and fans frequently remember his goals plus the many shots he took that just missed the mark.
Benegas, an all-state selection in the 2A classification, has superior ball skills and is an excellent passer.
of the Year
Luis Meraz played every game as if he wanted revenge.
His physicality on defense and his ability to become a cog in the offense made him a double threat.
Meraz scored five goals and had four assists, but he also orchestrated runs in the midfield and jammed the box on the offensive side.
He always seemed to know when to stay and defend and when to lead the charge, if only by a routine pass he would make to JK’s quality midfielders.
He was a player who put players around him in better positions to contribute.
A Tiger has won the top defensive award the past four seasons. Defender Hector Garcia won it in 2019 and GK Nelson Martel in 2017 and 2018.
JK, Sr., MF
Herrera scored nine goals, but his value to JK was goes far beyond statistics.
He was an unselfish playmaker who had a complete game.
The senior’s leadership was also notable on a talented but young Tiger team.
Jose Luis Osorio,
JK, Sr., MF
Osorio scored 15 goals and played similar to Herrera, although just different enough to add another element to the Tigers’ midfield.
His experience and decision-making were key.
WRH, So., GK
It might be hard to see, but Arqueta’s play in the goal for Wallace-Rose Hill was superb.
While the Bulldogs struggled to score, the play of Arqueta kept them in nearly every game during a 3-8-1 campaign that included six one-goal losses.
The sophomore made the first team last season when WRH went 20-5 and tied JK for first place in the ECC standings.
ED, Jr., F
Madrid scored a goal against both JK and WRH and had 10 for the season.
His four scored against Spring Creek were all vital as ED won 4-3.
His other contributions were also key as the Panthers finished 5-6-1 in a season that could have been much worse given its lack of experience.
JK, So., F
Augustine burst unto the scene in a big way as the second lighting-fast forward for JK.
He scored 18 goals and was another player the opposition always had to keep in check.
That proved impossible most days. His scores, and those by Benegas as well gave players like Herrera, Orosio and Adrian Capistran opportunities.
Augustine and Benegas are two of the fastest players in the state.
WRH, Sr., MF
Escobar played hard and heady soccer for a team that had just four seniors.
When there were breakdowns, he brought order.
ED, So., D
Campos, who scored two goals and had an assist, made his presence known on the defensive end.
He was an N.C. Soccer Coach’s pick in Region 6.
- Adrian Capistran, JK, Jr., MF. Scored 14 goals and will be one of the top players in Duplin this fall.
- Makenley Augustine,JK, So., F: Maken’s twin brother has the speed gene and is a rising player.
- Marlon Marquez, WRH, Sr. MF/F. Solid player who teams often overlooked.
- Mario Funez, JK, Sr. GK. Had a solid season in the cage. The Tigers didn’t give up cheap goals, and part of that was due to Funez.
- Jeffery Escobar, WRH, Sr., MF. Tri-captain often got the ball in the opposition’s end of the field. Some of WRH’s misfires made second-year coach Rodrigo feel as if an invisible lid cov
- ered the goal.
Michael Jaenicke can be reached at email@example.com