By David Rogers. May 10, 2019. KINGS MOUNTAIN, NC — Call it the “anti-sweep” offense, if you will. Watauga women’s soccer battled past a well-skilled, veteran Kings Mountain side Friday evening, 3-1. With the win, the Pioneers advance to the third round of the North Carolina 3A Soccer Championship tournament, meeting Northern Guilford on Wednesday, May 15th, the time to yet be announced.
COVER IMAGE: Watauga midfielder Ella Brown (12) battles for control of a “50-50” ball. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
The air was hot and humid, even “steamy” at the start of the match played in the Kings Mountain “swelter bowl” of a football stadium — but there was hardly a bead of sweat forming on the foreheads of either side when Pioneer midfielder Lily Suyao punched in a first-minute goal to give the High Country visitors an early 1-0 lead. Out on the wing, Shaelyn Sheaff was credited with the assist on her well-placed cross kick. (Editor’s Note: We originally credited Brelyn Sturgill, which we now understand was inaccurate)
Kings Mountain would not go quietly into the night.
Barely two minutes later, Sturgill sprinted past the Mountaineers’ defensive backline to push another apparent tally past the hosts’ goalkeeper, only to have it negated when the sideline judge flagged her for being “offsides.”
Nonetheless, the early offensive fireworks brightened the hopes of the Pioneer faithful in the stands, that this might be an easier path to the later rounds of the 3A state tournament than last Tueday’s first round tilt against Weddington.
That was not to be. Kings Mountain, the tournament’s #4 seed in the West bracket, would not go quietly into the night.
The Mountaineers’ roster features nine seniors with a state tournament history. As sophomores in 2017, they advanced to the third round. As juniors in 2018, they got as far as the fourth round. They were not about to let a young, lower-seeded (#13) Watauga squad come down the mountain and steal their senior glory without a fight in the 2019 second round.
As the first half continued, the Kings Mountain eleven strengthened their resolve and Watauga’s opening energy wilted in the heat. In almost a replay of Tuesday night’s first round battle against Weddington, the Pioneers’ midfield and forward players were consistently beaten to the ball, allowing Kings Mountain to dominate first half possession. And while the Mountaineers kept their feet on contact (where Weddington seemed unable to do so), Watauga was again flagged for penalties for what the referee deemed excessively physical play. Similar to what the Warriors were able to do on Tuesday night against Watauga, the penalties enabled Kings Mountain to drive the ball downfield with free kicks, keep the ball in the Watauga half of the field, and threaten finding the back of the Pioneer net for scores.
Watauga’s veteran backline would have none of it. Senior fullbacks Jo Hill, Sadye Franklin, Katherine Horne, and Lily Kamp, along with junior defenders Andie Waugh and Emma Schneider, among others, dug in to mostly dismantle the Kings Mountain offensive threats. And Pioneer senior goalkeeper Cailey Haas had another busy night, recording seven saves, a couple of them spectacular.
Usually, the team that wants it the most will win. We wanted it tonight more than they did.
“Our defense did a really good job in shutting down their attack,” Haas said to Blowing Rock News afterward. “There were a couple of balls that got through and they kind of made me nervous because we needed to communicate a little better.”
At one point in the first half, Haas figured prominently in saving a potential Kings Mountain goal on a free kick. The (unidentified) Mountaineer player taking the kick looped a high, arching ball from the left side toward the upper right corner, over Haas’ head, but the Pioneers’ senior goalkeeper leaped high and to her left to punch the ball up and over the crossbar.
“In the moment, I didn’t think I could get a good grip on the ball,” Haas explained, “so I just carried it over the top.”
That strong defensive effort helped Watauga take a 1-0 lead into intermission, but Kings Mountain evened things up with a little under 10 minutes gone in the second half. The Mountaineers’ junior midfielder Carly Johnson was fouled inside the penalty box and the home team was awarded a penalty kick. On the kick, Haas guessed that it would go to the right, but Johnson kicked instead to Haas’ left and the ball scooted into the open net for the tying goal.
Their sweeper was sitting in pretty deep.
As the evening temperatures cooled, the Pioneers warmed up. Watauga was quick to answer the Mountaineers’ successful penalty kick just a couple of minutes later when Sturgill dribbled between two defenders and tapped the ball past the diving Kings Mountain goalie, senior Baylee Marr. The lanky, athletic Marr had several outstanding saves in the second half, but was unable to prevent Sturgill’s surprise from point-blank range, from a mere 10-feet in front of the goal.
Suyao closed out the evening’s scoring 13 minutes later, near the 65-minute mark, when she pounded the ball past Marr, into the left corner of the net. Shaelyn Sheaff was credited with the assist on her crossing pass from the right wing.
Adjust and Adapt
Through-balls and speed have been staples of the Watauga women’s soccer offense this season, but for the first two rounds of the North Carolina 3A State Championship tournament, the Pioneers have had to figure out alternatives. Kings Mountain head coach Erik Price may have stolen a page out of Weddington’s playbook in how to temper down Watauga’s offensive firepower. Like Weddington, the Mountaineers were much faster afoot, more fit, and better prepared than most of the Pioneers’ regular season opponents in the Northwestern Conference, but Price also used a back defensive sweeper that helped neutralize Watauga’s speed on through-balls.
“Any time you get to the second round of the (state tournament),” observed Watauga head coach Chris Tarnowski after the match, “you are going to face a good opponent. Kings Mountain is a very good team. They were 17-2, three-time conference champs. They are definitely a solid team and we have a lot of respect for them.
We knew Watauga would come in here with a lot of physical play.
“Once we figured out their game plan,” Tarnowski added, “We made some small adjustments at halftime. Our girls made some terrific observations at halftime, and we adapted. You have to give a lot of credit to our midfielders, especially in the second half. Mary Louise (Sprague), Emma (Schneider) and Lily (Suyao) all played really well in controlling possession and redirecting the attack.”
Watauga hasn’t faced a rear sweeper defense — until hitting the playoffs.
“They had a sweeper who was sitting in pretty deep,” Pioneer midfielder/forward Shaelyn Sheaff observed, “so it was pretty hard for us to send those through-balls. But Lily (Suyao) and Bailey (Whitehead-Price) really helped finish the attack tonight. A lot of tonight’s game seemed to be played in the midfield.”
From a coaching perspective, the Kings Mountain rear sweeper simply posed a challenge that needed to be overcome.
“A sweeper, that’s a new one that we are facing this year,” Tarnowski admitted. “A sweeper eliminates a lot of our through-balls and takes much of our speed out of the equation. Whenever that happens, then we love to play small. We love to make one, two passes and definitely get the field switched. Any time we can change the point of attack we are going to do that, especially when facing a sweeper. It’s hard for them to adjust (as quickly as the ball changes direction). So playing on the field, on the ground, is definitely our best option.”
“We knew Watauga would come in here from a stronger conference, with a lot of physical play,” Kings Mountain head coach Price told Blowing Rock News after spending some time with his players at whistle’s end. “I felt like we played with them pretty well. We got it tied back up. We are proud of our group because they battled against a very good team. We hung in there, battled back, got the tie, then let it get away from us midway through the second half.
Sometimes in desperation, teams get cheap and dirty. Our girls didn’t let that happen.
“We battled to the end,” said Price. “We were still getting shots off toward the end. There was no quit. Sometimes in desperation teams can get cheap and dirty, and our girls didn’t let that happen. We have nine seniors on this team, checking out of here, so this is an emotional loss for them especially since they saw the third round two years ago and the fourth round last year. So to get put out in the second round this year is tough.”
Looking across the field at the celebrating Watauga squad, Price concluded, “But that Watauga team is a very good team, and we knew it. This was a great game and a great group of kids over there. Our hats are off to them and we wish Watauga the best of luck as they advance.”
Watauga senior fullback Jo Hill was optimistic later in saying, “That was a pretty tough game, but I think we had them for most of it. They had a couple of chances and then they got that PK (penalty kick) when we had an unlucky foul. They played a lot in the air, with a lot of long balls, and they are really good in the air, too, with a lot of good headers. They have some taller players. So that was a lot like Weddington (on Tuesday), but we handled them.”
Sturgill spoke to Watauga’s determination and desire.
“Usually the team that wants it the most will win,” said the freshman forward. “I am pretty sure that we wanted it more than the other team today. As long as we keep practicing the way we have been, we can make it as far as we want to.”
Watauga is the lone remaining Northwestern Conference member team in the state tournament. With Watauga, Hickory was co-champion of the NWC in league play, but the #6 seeded Red Tornadoes were upset by #11 A.C. Reynolds-Asheville on Friday, 3-0.
To advance past the third round, Watauga will need another upset over a higher-seeded team. On Wednesday (May 15th), they travel to Greensboro to take on Northern Guilford. The Nighthawks finished atop the MidState 3A Conference undefeated, with a 14-0 league record. After beating back Northwest Cabarrus, 3-0, in the second round, the #5 seeded Northern Guilford eleven will look to improve on their overall 18-1-1 record in hosting Watauga’s Pioneers. Opening kickoff time has not yet been announced.
The winner of the Watauga-Northern Guilford match will advance to play the winner of #1 seed Marvin Ridge and the #8 seed, South Iredell.