by Jeff Laughlin

I had all day to walk around and see High Point University’s campus for the first time, but driving into High Point actually took precedence. It had just rained, a fall shower that cooled off the city and left that clean, rainwater smell that only a small storm can provide. That swooshing sound of tires against wet cement kept me riding around mindlessly. I mean, I had given myself an hour to see the entrance and walk about the athletic fields.

So I cut into that time.

Once I finally got to the campus, I saw the water fountain, the massive learning facilities. The place looked too nice for me. Did anything on this campus look old or poorly made? There was little time to find out. I had 15 minutes to get to the soccer field.

In the distance, a whistle blew. The game started at 7, not 7:30. The sunset peeked out from the storm’s detritus as I hustled toward the sound of a lively crowd. Embarrassed, I considered watching from afar, camped behind the fences with other looky-loos, but the grass was wet and the jerseys were fuzzy.

Perhaps I would have stayed that faraway course had I known that HPU would be donning pink soccer jerseys for breast cancer awareness.

Instead, I settled into watching a 1-0 High Point lead against Longwood University after an early Mamadee Nyepon goal. High Point’s defense did the work from there. They had been phenomenal early in conference play, leading to a 2-0 record in the Big South thus far.

The Longwood Lancers, conversely, had struggled mightily in conference games. They could not stop anyone, amassed early deficits and found themselves winless in the Big South entering the match.

This had all the makings of a blowout: an overmatched team down on their luck against a powerful team hitting their stride. Unfortunately, High Point tried too hard to use their advantage. They played long forward passes at every opportunity to use their speed. They attacked the far side of the field obsessively as if they were running a drill instead playing a live game.

Meanwhile, Longwood’s athletic disadvantages paralyzed them. I may have missed the first goal, but the obvious natural order still remained.

As High Point turned the ball over consecutive times, though, Longwood’s possessions got longer and more confident. High Point still looked stout, but breakdowns happen, and the Panthers were lucky to escape the half with the 1-0 lead intact.

The second half began with long midfield battles and sloppy ballhandling. More long passes and zero use of the middle of the field left both teams sluggishly chasing the ball instead of moving it. The sides worked no advantages, and waited for mistakes to strike if they struck at all.

Nyepon hit again after Longwood had finally broken through for their first chances of the match when they fell asleep in the middle, allowing him to score from distance.

Until the 60th minute, HPU looked guaranteed to get their blowout. They began playing complete soccer — reversing the ball and attacking angles instead of relying on downfield passes and defense. They paraded shots on goal for around 10 minutes — chances from set pieces and ball movement alike — but could not shake Longwood’s desperate defense.

When Longwood scored on a set play in the 66th minute, the High Point team and fans still emitted confidence. After all, they had dominated the whole game. The goal had come on a penalty around 20 yards from goal and it had taken a beautiful header to finally beat the Panthers’ goalie.

When a handball call gave Longwood a penalty kick to tie nine minutes later, the air went out of the stadium. Rambunctious children lining the front wall and yelling were now covering their eyes. The rocking chairs along the back row stopped rocking and fans groaned audibly — some at the call and some at the result.

Fortunately, the agony lasted around 45 seconds. A long ball finally worked and sophomore Chris Ramsell buried a goal.

From there, Longwood barely touched HPU’s side of the field. The game ended at 3-2.

Order restored, the fans retreated happily into the mist, their squad still conference-perfect.

Of course, the games will get harder and the weather will get colder. The hard rain may fall upon the Panthers (5-4-1, 3-0). The meat of their schedule remains and the Big South is not all Longwood (1-8-1, 0-3) and home crowds. At some point, High Point will stare down the barrel of a tough conference game. Without the advantage, their response will mean everything.

You can’t cut time forever, lest you show up late.

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