Red Devils, Tigers honor Esperilla, battle to 2-2 tie

The Newton-Conover Red Devils and Foard Tigers Varsity boys’ soccer teams got together for a group photo prior to the contest at Gurley Stadium with jerseys that donned former Red Devils’ star player, Alan Esperilla’s name and No. 10 game jersey. This was a memorial game in honor of his recent passing and a scholarship was created in his name. (Photo by Cody Dalton/ CSD Photography)
Cody Dalton
O-N-E Contributor

With both squads wearing his signature jersey number, the Newton-Conover and Fred T. Foard boys soccer teams honored the memory of the late Alan Esperilla the best way they knew how — with their play on the field.

The Red Devils and Tigers each led once and trailed once during Thursday night’s competitive non-conference soccer game at Gurley Stadium before finishing in a 2-2 deadlock tie in both team’s final tune before conference play starts next week.

“Tonight, the 2019 Fred T. Foard and 2019 Newton-Conover teams put on a heck of a performance — one that was honorable to Alan Esperilla” said Foard head coach Scottie Goforth, who played in soccer leagues with Esperilla at Plaza Latina in Newton. “I think both Fred T. Foard and Newton-Conover absolutely gave Alan a wonderful game to be watching from above.”

Before Thursday’s game between the two Newton schools, a ceremony was held to honor Esperilla, a former state champion Red Devil soccer player who passed away Aug. 2 after a car accident in Hickory.

Esperilla’s family, including his mother Valeria, father Rosalino and brother Dilan, were presented with his No. 10 Newton-Conover jersey by Alan’s 2014 Red Devil state championship teammates.

Newton-Conover head soccer coach Angelo Palozzi, who coached Alan on that 2014 team, said the start of Thursday’s game was one of the most emotional of his coaching career.

“I was fine at first, but then I saw the tears from Dilan, his mother and some of the other kids that were around, and it started hitting me too,” Palozzi said. “I was trying to hold back the tears, but those memories came back. To see that 2014 team standing there about to give Alan’s family his jersey, it brings me back to when those guys lined up here to play. It was just an emotional night, but it was a beautiful night.”

It was only fitting that the scoring in Thursday’s game would start with a player wearing the same number Alan did.

Donning No. 10, Foard’s Irvin Martinez-Villa pocketed the game’s first goal just minutes into the first half.

The Tigers (4-1-3) led most of the first half and maintained possession until the Red Devils responded with less than five minutes left in the first half, tying the game on a goal by Isrrael Suarez.

“We came out a little slow there, and (Foard) took it right to us,” Palozzi said. “I told the guys that there was a lot of time left in this game. We got back into it. At first, we were playing the long ball and had to settle down a little bit.”

Continuing their positive momentum from the first half, Newton-Conover (5-1-1) capitalized on a man advantage after Foard received a red card to take a 2-1 lead on a header goal by Omar Connor with just 15 minutes remaining in the contest.

Goforth talked to his players following the goal, imploring them to find an extra gear.

“It was just a matter of digging deep,” Goforth said. “We made the adjustment of bringing (Foard senior) Drew Simmons up to the front line to really press the Newton back line. From there, you saw the shift. Both teams were exhausted.”

Just as the Red Devils had done in the first half, the Tigers used a late scramble for the ball in the box with five minutes left to come away with the equalizing goal from Kevin Cervantes — his fourth game-tying or go-ahead goal so far this fall season.

“We dug deep, found the courage and found the man in the box,” Goforth said. “It’s been the same guy that has kept popping up — Kevin Cervantes — in some crucial goals this year. I’m really happy for Kevin tonight, and I’m really happy for our Fred T. Foard soccer team.”

Fresh off their thrilling game against one another, the Tigers and Red Devils both start play in their respective conferences on Monday — Fred T. Foard on the road at Draughn and Newton-Conover at home against Lincolnton.

Although Thursday’s tie wasn’t ideal, Palozzi is proud of his team’s effort on such a special night.

“It was just a great night overall,” Palozzi said. “A lot of these kids know each other and knew Alan. Scottie knew Alan. It was a great game to get us both ready for conference play next week. Overall, ending with a tie against these guys isn’t bad. Obviously, you want to win, but it was a great game to see where we are. They are a good team. We’ll just see what the next steps are for us here.”