The Macon County Soccer Club U16 Panthers battled through to the finals of the Summer Starter Tournament in Pinehurst in mid-May, playing against some of the top club and academy teams in the state. The Panthers took the first game against GUSA White, 6- 2, on goals from Kevin Ruffner, Kyle Knopp, and two each from Arthur Garcia and Riggy Hernandez. The second game of the day finished in a 2- 2 tie, with goals by Hernandez and Knopp, which advanced the Panthers to the semi-final on the following day, based on cumulative points. In that game, the Panthers faced the Castely Soccer Academy Eagles, a strong squad of all-stars from Charlotte.
The teams fought back and forth with strong defense led by defenders Oscar Vanegas-Cruz, Raul and Ezequiel Damian, Edgar Chavez, and Oscar Gutierrez. The Panthers held the Eagles scoreless in front of goaltender Samuel Vargas, and the match ended with a scoreless tie. The overtime period failed to produce a goal for either side, leading to a shoot out to decide the match. Oscar Vanegas-Cruz and Edgar Chavez scored for the Panthers in the round of five, and Samuel Vargas stopped three of the first five shots. The shoot out should have ended with Arthur Garcia's apparent score on the fifth shot, but the ball went through a hole in the net and the point was denied by the referee. The shoot out went to a seventh round, and Jesus Zalapa scored for the Panthers. This was followed by Samuel Vargas' fifth save of the shoot out, setting off a wild celebration and advancing the Panthers to the championship game.
The Panthers entered the final drained from the OT game and without substitutes due to injury and illness. They gave a good effort but fell short in the rematch with CRSC Carolina Olympic, losing 2-0 to finish as the runners-up in the tournament. Their run to the final was an impressive outing for a first year team in the Classic League, and Head Coach Isidro Vargas and Assistant Coach Randy Ruffner were pleased with the outcome.
"Coach Vargas and I could not be more proud of the way this team stuck together and overcame so much adversity this season," Ruffner commented.
"Whether it was overcoming injuries or suspensions, this team never quit. The semifinal game against the Eagles was the most talented squad we've played all season. The fact that Macon County soccer could play such a top quality opponent and win in a shoot out says a lot for the determination and heart these guys played with. This was a game our players will remember for a very long time."
Ruffner is enthusiastic about the future of soccer in Franklin.
“ It says a lot about the state of Macon County soccer and our ability to compete, even though we have fewer players, against the big cities and larger teams," he added. "So many times this season we had one substitute and played against teams that had seven or eight, but we more than held our own against these quality teams.”