By Jack Frederick firstname.lastname@example.org | 265-7824 | Twitter: @_jackfrederick
Motivated toward the same goal for different reasons, a pair of area players capped off their final season of high school soccer by joining an elite group.
North Johnston midfielder Graham Walston and Fike midfielder Kevin Mendoza were both recognized as first-time all-state selections by the North Carolina Soccer Coaches Association, as announced last week.
Both received the award — which is voted on by coaches from around the state who are NCSCA members — as the spoils of their own hands in launching successful seasons on the pitch for their respective programs in 2019.
Mendoza became the third Golden Demon in a row to make the 3-A all-state ranks as one of 37 selections.
“It makes me feel like a better player, like a well-known player,” Mendoza said. “I was expecting to get all-state this year. I was working hard for it.”
Walston, on the other hand, was much more surprised to be recognized and joins 25 other 2-A players who shone through as top performers.
“First off, I was surprised,” Walston said. “Just to be considered for the award is amazing because that means you’re one of the top players in the classification and in the state. Just to be considered for it is an honor.”
But even as he was humbled to become just the fourth Panther to be graced with the honor, Walston’s role as a crucial facilitator for North Johnston set him apart.
Mendoza’s role as a scorer for Fike did the same.
PROVING HE BELONGED
Mendoza has thought a lot about this time last year.
After being named 3-A Big East Conference Offensive Co-Player of the Year his junior campaign along with senior teammate Myles Cyrus, Mendoza watched as Cyrus made the all-state roster while he came up a few votes short of joining him.
“I felt a little shocked that I didn’t because I was named co-offensive player with Miles and he got all-state too,” Mendoza said. “I’m very proud of him for getting that, but I felt like I should have gotten it with him too as a junior.”
In the time since then, Mendoza has worked hard to prove he belonged on that list. In his senior season, Mendoza scored 17 goals — second-most on the team behind Gavin Wheeler — while pitching in a team-high 17 assists.
“He’s a special player, about as technically gifted as you’ll find ...” Fike head coach Chris Mizelle said. “All-state is hard to come by. When we’re only given 12 or 13 spots and you’re in there with the coastal folks and then everybody from the Triangle as well, your Chapel Hills, Northern Durhams and all those guys its tough to make that list. So to have three years in a row now have a guy get on that list with Matt Cotton and Myles Cyrus in 17 and 18, I think it just shows what kind of players we’re putting out there.”
MENDOZA CONTRIBUTES TO DEEP PLAYOFF RUN
With Mendoza taking a bigger role to score now that the aformentioned other all-state players, who came before him, are gone, Fike won the 3-A Big East Conference title for the second time in a row. The team also reached the third round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A playoffs — the deepest postseason run since 2011.
In the time since the Demons’ season has ended, Mendoza has been named all-conference, NCSCA Region 3 Player of the Year, while joining five other teammates on the region team.
“Kevin has earned every bit of recognition he’s getting, and we’re hoping that his playing career isn’t quite over yet,” Mizelle said. “I think it was a big deal to see himself in a high-level group like that, to get that kind of recognition.”
Mendoza began the season looking for that validation for four years of progress. He finishes the year finding it.
PASSING THE TORCH
Following his own path, Mendoza hopes to pass on the torch to another Fike player on the all-state team next season who could make it four years in a row the Demons are represented.
“I feel like it will give next year’s team a little bit of a mindset to improve how we played this year,” Mendoza said. “And to get better, and work harder next year.”
Mendoza mentioned Wheeler expressed he will be working to become the next Fike player to earn his way toward the recognition.
“He felt like he should have gotten it too,” Mendoza said. “He played reall good.”
The streak has created a measuring stick for the next player up to try to reach.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
In some ways, Graham Walston has been chasing after his older brother, Ian, his whole life.
“I always tried to be better than him, so if he would do something I’d try to do something better since I’m the younger brother,” Graham said.
In 2016, the older Walston was honored with his second 2-A all-state honor. Now, younger brother has caught him.
“I don’t think I’ve told him yet, but with him being all-state and me being all-state, it helps lessen the sibling rivalry that he has over me now,” Walston said smiling.
Out of four North Johnston players to have been awarded the honor in program history, two of them share the same last name and grew up loving soccer with a seasoned coach, Brent Walston, for a father.
With the recent announcement, the recognition of being one of the top players in the state has become a family affair for the Walstons.
Even though he’ll be the second to earn the honor in his family, Graham Walston achieved all-state by his own accord.
The senior athlete, who humbly declared his final campaign “nothing special,” took on a unique role for his team that made him stand out among a host of all-region performers.
While not a flashy goal-scorer, the midfielder proved himself to be adaptable and became the glue that held the Panthers together.
“Graham’s role is definitely not to score goals, nor to really help a lot in creating goals,” North Johnston head coach Winston Pennington said. “His primary function was really to find pockets of space to maintain possession and help the team keep its shape.”
Helping hold his team together became important during a 10-0 run in the 2-A Eastern Plains Conference that extended to 12 games before the program fell to East Bladen in the second round of the NCHSAA 2-A playoffs.
Although not a scorer, Walston found ways to contribute on the offensive end as well during that season of success, scoring five goals and adding 10 assists.
Walston said what he enjoys most about playing soccer is the teamwork.
“No one player can win a game,” Walston said. “It’s all about each 11 players doing their job and what their positions asked them to do.”
Those details of his favorite part of the game stand out because it sets a roadmap to how he earned the honor. Walston simply found his role and excelled at it.
THE NEXT STEP
Walston and Mendoza won’t be found on the high school soccer field moving forward, but neither plan to lose their connection to the game.
Mendoza has committed to continue his soccer career close to home playing for Barton College.
“It’s really close to where I live and I know a few people who play there already,” Mendoza said.
Meanwhile, Walston isn’t planning to continue playing the game, but has interest in becoming a high school or college soccer coach. He has narrowed his choices to East Carolina, UNC Wilmington, UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. State and plans to study sports management.
“I’ve grown up playing soccer since I was 2, so being around it 15 years now, I’ve learned to love soccer and keep with it,” Walston said.