PILOT MOUNTAIN — It took a while for East Surry to get going on Saturday evening, but once it did, nothing was keeping the school’s girls’ soccer team from its date with school history.
After a scoreless first half, the Lady Cardinals dominated play in the final 30 minutes of their second-round NCHSAA 1A state playoff match with Mountain Island Charter, coming away with a 2-0 victory and the program’s first-ever trip to the third round of postseason play.
With the win, East Surry advances to face either North Moore or Thomas Jefferson Academy on Wednesday night. The 11th-seeded Lady Cardinals will host if the opponent is TJA, but will have to play on the road for the first time in the postseason if North Moore is the opponent.
East Surry (12-9-1) had other things to worry about for much of Saturday’s match, however. The Lady Cardinals earned the right to host a second home match when MIC upset sixth-seeded Highlands in first-round action earlier this week, but they quickly found out that while the Raptors’ victory had saved them a 225-mile bus ride to Highlands, it hadn’t given them any breaks in terms of competition. After East Surry just missed on a few opportunities to take an early lead, the visitors settled in and acted like they wanted to make the Lady Cardinals their second higher-seeded victim of the tournament.
The first serious threat came about three and a half minutes into the match, when Mary Jo Lowe got open from about 10 yards in front of the MIC goal and took a shot which Raptor keeper McKenzie Webster just managed to get her hands on and deflect the ball over the crossbar. That earned East Surry a corner kick, and moments later, Elyssa Jones had a shot of her own, only to see Webster grab it.
After that bit of action, momentum began to switch in the direction of the Raptors, who had about three-fifths of the possession time in the first half and managed to keep the Lady Cardinals on their heels for much of the time. East Surry got stalwart defense from Anna Simmons, Alayna Speer and Laura Ruiz on the back line, and MIC didn’t get any shots that keeper Maggie Collins couldn’t handle, but with the Raptors on the attack, there was no way East Surry could score even if MIC couldn’t.
“Basically, I thought they just wanted it more than we did in the first half,” said East Surry coach Bill Hart. “It seemed like we were near the ball, but we weren’t running through it, weren’t getting our body on the ball, and weren’t really challenging. They were beating us to 50/50 balls at least two-thirds of the time.”
The Lady Cardinals did begin to mount a threat late in the first half. Mikayla Custer got the team’s first shot on goal in 32 minutes with three minutes remaining in the period, and then in the final half-minute, East Surry almost scored. Jones stole the ball from a Raptor defender, raced down the sideline and crossed to Lowe in front of the goal, but two MIC defenders raced to cut her off and prevented her from scoring with about 10 seconds left.
The half ended as a scoreless tie. Things could have been worse, but the East Surry coaches felt like their team hadn’t played the kind of soccer that made them the Northwest Conference’s top traditional school team and put them into the second round.
“In the second half, you could really see us step up our intensity,” said Hart. “We were running through the ball and winning the 50/50 balls, and we started controlling play like we thought we should have right from the beginning.”
The Lady Cardinals came out for the second half much more aggressively, and it wasn’t long before the Raptors’ defense started to crack. The breakthrough finally came in the 57th minute, when MIC was forced to clear a ball out of bounds near the end line. The ball went in front of the flag instead of behind it, meaning East Surry would only get a throw-in instead of a corner kick, but Hart had an answer for that. He asked fullback Emma Simmons to come up and take the throw-in. Simmons, one of the strongest throwers on the team, put the ball on the money in front of the goal, where Emma Kish and Kaitlyn Rhodes both were waiting. It was Kish who got her foot on the ball and put it into the net for a 1-0 East Surry lead with 24:32 remaining.
“We know that Emma Simmons has a great throw, and so we bring her up to take a lot of those kinds of throws,” said Hart. “She got it where we wanted it, and Emma Kish was right there for us.”
The Lady Cardinals were clearly the better team for the rest of the night. MIC hung tough, but East locked it up in the final minutes. At the four-minute mark, Lowe made a crossing pass to Jones, who pushed her shot just wide of the goal. It turned out not mattering when the Raptors couldn’t clear the ball on the ensuing goal kick. A long return pass from the midfield found Lowe running free down the middle of the field. She closed on Webster one-on-one at about 15 yards and put it past her for the clincher with 3:06 remaining.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.