PILOT MOUNTAIN — The bad news is that East Surry’s record-setting girls’ soccer season came to an end Wednesday evening in the third round of the NCHSAA 1A state playoffs.
The good news is that this isn’t the last chapter in the tale of these Lady Cardinals.
East Surry stood toe-to-toe with heavily favored Thomas Jefferson Academy for 15 minutes, but ultimately couldn’t control the ball well enough in the face of the Gryphons’ talented midfielders and strikers, and dropped a 5-1 decision that ended the team’s season at 12-10-1. The Lady Cardinals’ achievement of reaching the third round of the playoffs stands as the best postseason result in the history of ESHS girls soccer, but it’s one that they will fully expect to improve upon a year from now.
“I think next year could be a great year for this team,” said East Surry coach Bill Hart. “I don’t see why it wouldn’t be another record-setting year. We’re losing Emma and Alayna, but there’s some very talented girls coming up from the middle school next year.”
East Surry had just two seniors on this year’s team. Both Emma Kish and Alayna Speer were on the field for much of the game, but Hart pulled both of them in the final four minutes, allowing the announcer and the fans to recognize their contributions to the school’s ever-improving program.
“We just wanted to give them some recognition for all they’ve meant to the program over the years,” the coach said.
The match started out like it would be a shootout. Exactly four minutes in, the Gryphons took a 1-0 lead when striker Mikayla Burleson managed to out-run an East Surry defender down the middle of the field and got an open shot outside the right post from 10 yards out. She angled it perfectly and got it past Lady Cardinal keeper Maggie Collins.
It was clear right away that TJA was a formidable opponent and that East Surry had its work cut out for it to get to the state quarterfinals, but the Lady Cardinals weren’t intimidated, and quickly turned the tables on the Gryphons. Less than two minutes later, a TJA defender was whistled for a handball 25 yards from the net, and Bethany Hunter blasted the free kick over the head and through the hands of Gryphon keeper Carter Plaster to tie the match.
From there, the teams played on basically even terms for several minutes, even after TJA regained the lead on an eight-yard shot by freshman sensation Alli Varga after she beat two defenders with 29:06 left in the opening half. East Surry battled back, and two and a half minutes later, a Gryphon defender was forced to all but tackle the Lady Cardinals’ Mary Jo Lowe just inside the goal box to prevent a likely goal. The defender earned a yellow card for the foul, but more importantly, Laura Ruiz stepped up to take a penalty kick for East Surry.
Normally, this is money in the bank, but no one’s perfect, and Ruiz seemed to hit the ball slightly off-target while aiming to put her shot inside the right post. The ball hooked just outside and harmlessly out of bounds, and the Lady Cardinals never seemed to recover.
Thomas Jefferson Academy (12-7) held possession for approximately 80 percent of the first half after Ruiz’ miss, and Lowe, East Surry’s leading scorer, wouldn’t get another chance at so much as a shot on goal until midway through the second half.
“Laura is usually automatic on PK’s, and I think we were all thinking the score was going to be tied, (the coaches) included,” Hart said. “When she missed that, it was a little deflating and you could see that it took the wind out of them a little bit. But sometimes that happens. We did hold them the rest of the half, and it was still just 2-1.”
Despite being under constant pressure, the Lady Cardinal defense held strong behind Ruiz, who more than atoned for her miss on the penalty kick, and Speer for the rest of the opening half, and East Surry went to the break still trailing by just one goal.
The roof finally caved in after six minutes of relentless pressure by the Gryphons to open the second half. At 34:08, a free kick from 20 yards out sailed high over Collins’ head and into the net for a 3-1 TJA lead. The East Surry defense continued to show cracks, and three minutes later, a similarly well-placed shot found the back of the net and extended the Gryphon lead to 4-1. The Lady Cardinals settled down after that and even began to possess the ball a little more, but were unable to get many quality shots at the goal. Finally, with 16:38 to play, a breakdown in the middle of the field left Burleson open for her second goal of the night.
“We’d talked about it before the match, and we knew if the defense was under too much pressure, they wouldn’t be able to hold up to an offense as good as this one,” said Hart. “We just struggled to possess the ball in the midfield.”
East Surry’s best chances to score in the second half came not long after. About two and a half minutes after the final TJA goal, Ruiz and Mikayla Custer were both in front of the net in a loose ball situation, but Plaster challenged them one-on-one and managed to get to the ball first. Later on, she saved a strong shot by Lowe from about 10 yards out.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.