By Jeff Keeling
“We believe that we will win!” A rowdy group of University High boys repeated the chant as they stood on the sidelines at Civitan Park Thursday night, their girls’ soccer team holding a 3-1 lead over arch-rival Elizabethton.
It was midway through the second half of the district championship game, senior striker Annika Oiler had just drilled a shot from relatively close range through the legs of Elizabethton keeper Linda Espino, and for the first time in more than 200 minutes of play between the teams during the 2016 season, more than one goal separated the Bucs and the Cyclones.
An unexpected delay and several minutes of play later, the boys had fallen silent. Three sprinklers had mysteriously sprung into action just behind the UH goal, quenching UH’s momentum, and when play had resumed, Elizabethton had scored twice in quick succession.
And by the time senior midfielder Maya Houston was booked for her second yellow card with less than a minute left in regulation and the score still knotted at 3, choice words for the referee and groans of dismay had supplanted the chants of confidence.
The teams would head to two 10-minute overtime periods with UH at a distinct disadvantage, and the loser would face the Herculean task of traveling to Greeneville for an elimination game against the defending state champion Greene Devils, who were in the process of dismantling their district tournament final opponent Chuckey-Doak 11-1.
UH came out in overtime refusing to sit back and play for a penalty kick shootout. After Houston’s ejection, head coach Dan Almond said, he told his players to stay calm. “I think we play soccer the right way,” Almond said after the game. “We try not to foul, we try to play the beautiful game, the way it’s supposed to be played. Once we calmed down and just enjoyed being out there, being able to play the game, I think everybody settled in a little bit and they played great.”
After a slight shift in midfield strategy to cover for the missing Houston, UH made several forays into Elizabethton’s penalty box in the overtimes, giving as good as they got. UH goalkeeper Liz Burns made several impressive saves. One of Elizabethton’s comeback goals had come off of a direct free kick after Burns was called for a hand ball outside the penalty box.
With several minutes remaining in the second overtime and all the players on the field getting to balls a step or two less quickly than they had for most of the game, UH co-captain Gracie Somich got a strong foot on the ball inside the box.
The Cyclones’ backup goalkeeper, Reagan Armstrong, committed to the shot’s direction but it deflected, skipped into the right post, and trickled across the goal line as Armstrong could only watch in dismay. The UH boys were joined by the rest of the Bucs’ fan base in explosive cheering, and a few minutes later, the final whistle having sounded, they stormed the field with homemade flags flying.
Almond didn’t mince words about the importance of winning the district tournament, and the difference between a home game against Chuckey-Doak or a trip to Greeneville (the Bucs faced Chuckey-Doak Tuesday night after News & Neighbor went to press).
“It’s huge,” Almond said. “We had a game against Chuckey-Doak in the region semifinals last year, and I thought we played them real well. There’s a young lady on their team that scored lots of goals, but I’ll tell you what – earning that home match and possibly seeing Greeneville in the finals rather than the semifinals, that’s big. We all had that in the back of our mind.”
As they have through much of the year (they had previously tied 1-1 and 0-0), the two teams battled back and forth in a manner befitting such evenly matched lineups. Wing Samantha Grillo opened the scoring for UH with a deft touch that set herself up for a strong right-footed kick from the left side of the box midway through the first half.
Elizabethton answered almost immediately and the teams went to halftime tied. UH grabbed the momentum early in the second half, and Houston fed a low through ball perfectly for UH’s most prolific scorer, striker Sarah Robinson, who ran up on it and placed a shot home to give the Bucs a 2-1 lead. Oiler followed with her strike a few minutes later.
While the team hasn’t given up many goals this season, University High has relied on an attacking style of play this season, and Almond said he didn’t want to depart from that even when a 10 on 11 overtime was looming.
“When you’re a man down you’ve got to get creative, and I think some coaches when they go a man down they play not to lose, and that’s just not our style. So when we had the opportunity to try to get up, I changed a few things in midfield after we went a man down and it worked out in the end.”