From the outside, there wasn’t any reason to think this season would be all that special for Cedar Ridge men’s soccer.

They finished 5-15-1 in 2022, winning only three Central Carolina Conference games. They won consecutive games only once and lost its top scorer from each of the past two seasons, Cthe Rhris Mendez, due to graduation.

Yet from the very beginning of the season, when they defeated Eno River Academy 4-2 on August 14 at Cedar Ridge Stadium, there was a different feel for Cedar Ridge this year. After the win over the Bobcats, senior midfielder Iliah Babchenko said the team’s goal was to make the state playoffs for the first time in six years. Babchenko had a goal and an assist in the season opener against Eno River.

Soon, those expectations would grow larger. Three days later, the Red Wolves started a four-game road trip with a 4-1 win over Voyager Academy in Durham. Babchenko scored on a penalty. The Red Wolves would start 4-0-1, its best start in 14 years.

The most thrilling win of the nonconference portion of the schedule came against Seaforth in Pittsboro, when the Red Wolves rallied from two goals down to beat the Hawks 3-2. Jonam Juarez scored the game-winning goal.

Babchenko was the leading scorer on the best Cedar Ridge men’s soccer team ever at the 3A level. The Red Wolves finished 12-5-3 overall, 8-2-2 in the CCC. Babchenko finished with six goals and 13 assists.

Without question, his most memorable moment of the season came against Western Alamance on September 10. Mired in a rugged, scoreless game in the final five minutes of regulation, Babchenko triggered a corner kick along the north end of Red Wolves Stadium. The ball was blocked back to Babchenko, who launched a cross into the six-yard box. Salomon Hernandez curved into the right spot and got enough contact on a header to tuck the ball into the right corner of the net, setting off a wild celebration that spilled onto the track.

The Red Wolves would hold on to beat the Warriors 1-0. The win vaulted Cedar Ridge into first place in the CCC, where they remained until the final week of the season.

“We had a great season,” Brummell said. “This is probably one of the most memorable seasons I will ever have. I feel like in the very short period I’ve been here, we’ve really turned things around. I’m going to miss Iliah, though.”

Babchenko was also directly responsible for a 2-1 win over Walter Williams in Burlington, Cedar Ridge’s first conference win ever at Kernodle Field. Babchenko scored a goal and also assisted on the game-winner from Dominic McNerney.

Last month, Southern Lee defeated Cedar Ridge 3-2 in the opening round of the 3A State Playoffs. It was the first time since 2015 that the Red Wolves hosted a state playoff game.

Cedar Ridge finished second in the CCC despite having just four seniors. Babchenko, emotional after his final game at Cedar Ridge, summed up a memorable senior season following the loss to the Cavaliers.

“I think we had a lot of goals for this season,” Babchenko said. “We had high expectations. I remember after the Eno River win, I said we wanted to make the state playoffs. We did it, but we didn’t get the result we wanted (against Southern Lee). But we can’t knock ourselves because we put up a fight.”

Babchenko began playing in the Mebane Youth Soccer Association, then moved on to play at Triangle United for travel soccer. His parents moved to the United States in the early 2000s from Ukraine. Babchenko’s father was the public address announcer for Red Wolves games this season at Cedar Ridge Stadium.

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