By David Rogers. March 28, 2019. HUDSON, NC — It’s not how you start, but how you finish — and that is a good thing for Watauga High School women’s soccer, who struggled in the opening minutes of their league match at South Caldwell Thursday night.
COVER IMAGE: Watauga freshman speedster Brelyn Sturgill launches another successful shot on goal after beating a South Caldwell defender. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
It was one of those “when it rains, it pours” types of matches. Played under sunny skies and temperatures in the 60s in the Spartan’s football stadium, this Northwestern Conference match-up looked like it would evolve as a physical, “battle royale” between two longtime rivals.
After a sluggish start, characterized by errant passing and ball-handling miscues on both sides, Watauga found its rhythm to break things open in the 10th minute, then ran away to a “mercy” rule-shortened win, 9-0, with still 23 minutes remaining in the second half.
For offensive-minded fans, Watauga treated thei Sr soccer palates with a little bit of everything.
- Right wing Bailey Whitehead-Price recorded a hat trick with the match’s first three goals, two of them on the receiving end of long passes downfield from midfielders Lily Suyao and Ella Brown where she sprinted past the South Caldwell defenders to punch the ball past the Spartan goalkeeper.
- Just as the match had started in dramatic fashion, it ended with Watauga’s ninth goal in the 57th minute when halfback Emma Schneider collected a wayward ball a little past midfield, settled it, then launched a shot on goal from 40-yards out that looped over the goalie’s head, ducked under the crossbar, and into the net to an appreciative roar from the Watauga supporters.
- Freshman forward Brelyn Sturgill didn’t waste any time once she took the field for the first time in the 28th minute. She scored two goals in roughly seven minutes, her first a sprint-and-shoot just a half-minute after entering the game.
- Suyao, also a junior, was relentless in initiating attacks on the Spartan goal. She finished with two goals and an assist in helping propel the Pioneers to a dominant, 7-0 first half.
- Center forward Lindsey Fletcher played almost the entire 57 minutes. Her contributions to the attacking offense included similar sprints on goal as Whitehead-Price and Sturgill. While she had two shots on goal Wturned away by the South Caldwell goalkeeper, she was also credited with two important assists.
- After shutting out South Caldwell in the first half, senior goalkeeper Cailey Haas cast aside her GK jersey to play right wing on offense, with a credible performance. Included in her second half opportunities was a gritty display of ball control in traffic before shoving the ball toward the left side of the net — and barely saved by a diving Spartan goalkeeper.
While the Watauga offense was busy on attack, including 17 shots on goal through the porous Spartan defensive backline, the Pioneers’ defensive performance cannot be overlooked. Where the South Caldwell defenders were dominated by Watauga attackers, the Pioneer defense was solid, led by the likes of Andi Waugh, Ella Brown, Katherine Horne, Sadye Franklin and Mary Louise Sprague. In the mercy rule-shortened second half, freshman right fullback Abby Kamp played deft defense, exhibiting good footwork in her ball-handling, as well as flashes of speed in turning the ball upfield on attack.
“I can’t be more proud of these girls,” Pioneer head coach Chris Tarnowski shared with Blowing Rock News after the game. “They came out and played our brand of soccer. Nice quick passes, playing together. I can’t say enough about their work ethic. They come to work every single day and for each game, playing for each other. There isn’t much to be upset about.”
Watauga’s ability to move the ball back and forth across the field and changing the direction of attack was noteworthy, as well as the team’s one- and two-touch passing.
“In the first half, it I took a little bit to get us going,” Tarnowski admitted about the early out-of-synch play, “but it is not about how you start, but how you finish.”
Once Blowing Rock News mentioned a potential speed advantage, the first-year Watauga head coach smiled in noting, “Yeah, we are blessed to have some players who can really burn it up and down the sideline and even in midfield. So we definitely try to take advantage of that and get some through-balls to them, especially up the middle and down the flanks.”
Despite the lopsided result, Tarnowski was quick to credit the South Caldwell coach Elliot Bridges, who earned Northwestern Conference “Coach of the Year” honors a year ago for his work in improving the Spartan women’s soccer program.
“They play together. They play physical,” Tarnowski described the Spartans’ style of play. “They are definitely going to come out here and knock you around a bit and we always have to prepare for that.”
In post-game comments to Blowing Rock News, Whitehead-Price credited familiarity as a strong reason for the Watauga team’s success.
“We have played with each other for so long,” she said, with a big smile. “We play for the school and we play on the same soccer club (High Country United). We work so well together. That becomes obvious with our passing and our combining. You can see it in our chemistry with each other. Our passing and our dynamic is just really special to our team.”
Sturgill emerged as a rare freshman starter on the Watauga basketball team this year, where she played in the backcourt with Haas, and has played with most of the Pioneer soccer players while representing High Country United.
“There isn’t much difference,” Sturgill said, responding to a question about how club soccer compares to high school soccer. “We all practice the same.”
Both young women giggled when Blowing Rock News pointed out that the Pioneers had a speed advantage against the South Caldwell defense.
“When the defense presses that high up (almost to midfield),” Whitehead-Price explained, “we are really good at pushing through-balls. Ella (Brown), Andi (Waugh) and Lily (Suyao) all do a really good job at seeing those opportunities to push those balls through and we chase them down.”
At 5-0, the Pioneers remain undefeated in conference play, 7-2 overall. They look to extend their league dominance Friday night at home, in a 5:00 pm (varsity only) game vs. West Caldwell. The Warriors have hopes of recording their first win of the season, 0-8 overall, 0-4 in Northwestern Conference play.