Photo: Craig Cappy Parkview's Zachary Welch, left, defends against North Gwinnett's Matthew Melton in a game that was played early this year at North Gwinnett High school.
The stakes were high, and North Gwinnett boys soccer coach Mike Wentzler did nothing to hide them.
"I laid it all out for them: These are the possibilities," Wentzler said of his discussions before a key Region 7-AAAAA match with Duluth on April 13.
While potential playoff seeding depended on the Mill Creek-Collins Hill match, the seeding wouldn't matter if North didn't beat Duluth. A Bulldog loss meant no playoffs because of tiebreakers.
Faced with the must-win situation, North delivered with a 2-1 victory to secure its second playoff berth in as many seasons with Wentzler as head coach.
The playoff-clinching victory brought relief for Wentzler, whose past made the big match with Duluth more interesting. He's a former Duluth goalkeeper and was a Wildcat assistant before being hired at North.
"The fact that I played at Duluth under Coach (Gregg) Tavani and I coached some of the guys we were playing against, I was really concerned," Wentzler said. "I knew it would be tough. ... When (Duluth) came out and played intense and physical, I don't know if some of my guys realized it was going to be like that. I think that's why we got down 1-0 early. But as the game went on, we settled in and played our game."
Nico Polanco drew a foul and Kian Pourak converted the penalty kick for the Bulldogs' first goal against Duluth, then Polanco scored the game-winner off a James Lee assist. Those three players have filled key roles all season for North.
Pourak, a striker, is among the top goal-scorers in region play with six, including two in an upset of region champion Collins Hill (North is the only 7-AAAAA team to beat Collins Hill).
"A lot of times when he's scoring, he's scoring big goals," Wentzler said.
Polanco also had one of his best games against Collins Hill. His versatility has allowed Wentzler to use him in the midfield, at striker and at center back at times. Lee, a junior captain, also played all over the field.
Another big key has been senior Matthew Melton, a rare veteran on a junior-dominated team. The Appalachian State signee, one of only three North seniors, is an important leader.
"(Melton) gets those guys going," Wentzler said. "We could be doing the worst thing in the world and he stays positive. He gets them to come together, rally around it and get through it."
Now that North (9-7-2) has a state playoff berth locked up, it can focus on the next mission -- winning a playoff game. North hasn't won in the postseason since the early 1990s.
The Bulldogs will open the playoffs on the road against one of the top seeds in Region 8-AAAAA -- Brookwood or Parkview.
"We definitely want to win a playoff game; they're chomping at the bit," Wentzler said. "They were pretty upset we didn't get a higher seed, but unfortunately we lost to Norcross, which finished in the lower half of the region. We would have won the region if not for that. We were that little stumble away from winning the region on a tiebreaker.
"But the kids definitely want to win in the playoffs. Just making it is not satisfying to them anymore."