By Jeff Keeling
The University High girls have created numerous scoring opportunities against nearly all their opponents this season. They did so again Thursday in a much-hyped clash against Elizabethton at Civitan Park, but finishing those opportunities was a different matter.
District 1 A/AA’s top teams battled to their second draw of the season, this time 0-0, despite the Lady Bucs dominating possession and shots on goal.
UH coach Dan Almond credited the Cyclones defensive strategy, and a stellar performance by substitute Elizabethton goalkeeper Linda Espino. The Lady Bucs have scored prolifically this season, and Almond said Cyclone coach Bill McClay had a plan, packing his defense around the top of the penalty box, “then kind of absorbing it and hoping for a counterattack.”
“It’s either go out and cross them in or take long shots, it doesn’t matter — it’s kind of hard going into the teeth of a defense like that,” Almond said. “There are only a couple of options to get around that kind of a defense. I can’t blame them for doing it — we’e a pretty offensive team. It is what it is.”
By the time senior striker Annika Oiler finished a masterful run by putting an open look from 10 yards over the crossbar, the Junior Lady Bucs had put a number of shots high, wide, or within save range of Espino. Despite the Bucs’ failure to find the net, it was a game against a strong opponent that left Almond generally pleased.
It also left UH (4-0-2 in league play, 6-1-2 overall) with an advantage in league goal differential, and thus likely to capture the number one seed for the district tournament. Elizabethton is 6-0-2, while UH faced home contests Tuesday and Friday against Happy Valley and Unicoi, which it had beaten by a combined tally of 24-0 in their first games.
The thriller at Civitan
Thursday’s game was a likely preview of the tournament championship, and it proved to be a thriller. UH had a slight first-half possession advantage, but survived a major scare about 10 minutes in as Elizabethton managed to sneak a ball behind UH keeper Liz Burns. With an open net and players converging, senior left back Daysha Collins won a race across the box and managed a clearance.
“I thought it was going in, and man, just her pace really, really saved us at that moment,” Almond said of Collins, who played the entire game along with Makenna Oiler and Alayna Smith. “We get a goalie stepping out we always try to get at least one of the fullbacks coming in, but that was just an exceptional moment by a really good player.”
Later in the half, senior midfielder Maya Houston made two delivery passes to junior striker Sarah Robinson on the right wing that allowed the prolific scorer to work her way to mid-range shots. The first just cleared the crossbar, while the second was stopped by Espino just inside the right post. The second half saw UH dominate possession, and Oiler’s late miss in the rain was one of a half dozen or so good chances.
Espino wasn’t the only one providing heroics in goal. Liz Burns, who has borne the lion’s share of goalkeeping duties this season due to health issues for Courtney Henley, stopped one first-half shot just inside the right post after the Cyclones had ample time to work inside the box, and had several other saves.
Almond credited Reed Tallman, his goalie coach, who was a keeper when he played. “He volunteers his time, and what he’s done with both Courtney and Liz this season has been really fun to watch.”
Collins’s back line mates also shined when the need arose to repel Cyclone counterattacks and during Elizabethton’s rare moments of possession in the UH back third. Center back Alayna Smith and Oiler, a freshman, all played the entire game.
In addition to more time ahead from Henley, who may play either goalie or forward/wing, the team should be seeing more of junior co-captain and midfielder Gracie Somich. Somich, who Almond said complements Houston perfectly in the center of the midfield, is coming off of a hip injury and played limited minutes Thursday.
“There were a few things I saw that Elizabethton was giving us and Gracie’s skill set kind of adds to attack those particular kind of things,” Almond said. “Not having her in their full time is really tough because her and Maya do a great job.”
The team will need all its weapons if it is to continue pushing further into the postseason. Defending state champion Greeneville, a perennial state power, is “destroying everybody” so far in the regular season, Almond said. Chuckey-Doak isn’t as clearcut a second in District 2 as the team was last year, but Almond said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the Lady Black Knights — who ended UH’s season in the regional semis last year — in that same spot against whoever wins District 1’s playoff. The runner up is almost certain to face Greeneville, a fact that adds import to the district championship.
Players such as Robinson (21 goals, 3 assists), Oiler (12 goals, 3 assists), eighth grade wing Sarah Luna (10 goals, 7 assists) and Houston (7 goals, 3 assists) will need to convert their chances against strong teams.
Henley may join the front line thanks to the growth of Burns in goal. “It’s a nice problem to have,” Almond said of his goalkeeper dilemma. So far this season, Burns has registered 21 saves and Henley, in her limited time, has 10.
“I’m comfortable having either one of them in the goal or in the field.”
Almond is confident his team has the skills in all facets of the game to make a deeper run in the postseason this year. The Bucs battled to a 2-1 loss against District 1 AAA regular season champion Tennessee High, on the road no less, marking an improvement over last year’s 4-1 loss.
Burns was in goal for 90 percent of that game, with Henley making her first trip back to mind the net for a short spell, and Almond said both played well against a powerful offense.
“I was very happy with the result, and also the effort of the back line in that game,” Almond said.
“We’re comfortable in the place we’re at right now, but there’s always areas of improvement to where you’ve got that chance to go ahead and win the game when it’s really close, you’ve got to step up and do it.”