By David Rogers. May 7, 2019. BOONE, NC — Some second halves in soccer seem to fly by. Others are agonizingly long, even tense nail biters.
COVER IMAGE: Watauga midfielder Lily Suyao initiates an attack. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
Almost halfway through the second half of Watauga’s pairing vs. Weddington in the first round of the North Carolina State Championship tournament, Pioneer senior midfielder Mary Louise Sprague gathered in a pass from senior defender Sadye Franklin, then pushed it into space behind the Weddington backline. Junior forward Bailey Whitehead-Price sprinted past the Warrior defenders in pursuit of the ball, quickly gained control, then pounded it across the face of the Weddington goal and past the visitors’ lunging goalkeeper into the right corner of the net. It was the first — and proved the only — score of the contest between 13th-seeded Watauga and 20th-seeded Weddington. The Pioneers prevailed, 1-0, and will advance to the second round.
For Watauga women’s soccer head coach Chris Tarnowski and the legion of fans in the grandstands at Jack Groce Stadium Tuesday night, a one-goal lead was anything but comfortable.
Weddington has some very good players. They are very quick. They have very good foot skills and they work hard to win the ball.
If Watauga women’s soccer goalkeeper Cailey Haas has been “bored” much of this season in Northwestern Conference play because her skilled, athletic teammates have controlled possession and pressed opponents at the other (attacking) end of the field, that wasn’t the case Tuesday night against Weddington at Jack Groce Stadium.
The Warriors were the fifth-place finisher in a strong 3A Southern Carolina Conference during the regular season. It is a league that includes two of the top-12 teams (Charlotte Catholic and Marvin Ridge) at any level in North Carolina.
“We knew they were going to be a strong opponent,” Whitehead-Price told Blowing Rock News after the match. “In Northwestern Conference play, against most of the teams we had a clear speed advantage. Weddington pretty much neutralized whatever advantage we might have (enjoyed) during conference play. In fact, they might even have been faster than us in terms of overall team speed. We knew we were going to have to play strong defense and rely on our combinations.”
Especially in Tuesday’s first half, Weddington did appear to have the faster side, consistently beating the Pioneers to the ball to dominate possession for most of the game. To make matters worse for the home team, their aggressive, physical style of play frequently got them into trouble. Weddington players seemed unable to stay on their feet with any kind of contact and the referee responded by flagging Watauga with, by one impartial observer’s count, ten or more penalties in the first half alone. As a consequence, Weddington was able to put the ball into play downfield, often keeping the ball in the Pioneers’ half of the field for long periods of time.
Watauga Speed, Neutralized
At least two players on Weddington’s roster compete on a travel team with Watauga midfielder Lily Suyao, so she had some firsthand insight into what the Pioneers would be facing.
“Weddington has some very good players,” Suyao noted. “They are very quick. They have very good foot skills and they work very hard to win the ball. We had some very lucky chances where the ball didn’t go into the back of the net, but we played as a team and made what we could of it. Ultimately, we outworked them most of the time.
“It was hard,” Suyao added, “not to be able to fully utilize one of the strengths we had during conference play, which is our speed. Fortunately, we were able to figure out other ways. It was a great goal that proved the difference maker. The passing and putting the ball into space…then Bailey (Whitehead-Price) finishing.”
Haas and her backline defenders were kept busy, turning back waves of Weddington attacks. The senior goalie was quick to acknowledge Blowing Rock News’ observation that Tuesday’s first-round match kept her busier than usual.
Watauga has a big backline and their goalie played well. So what are you going to do?
“I probably fielded more shots on goal in that game than all of the conference games combined,” Haas nodded, smiling. “We knew that the 3A Southern Carolina Conference is one of the best in the state. So even though they were the fifth-place team from that conference, we knew that Weddington was going to be a really big challenge. I am really proud of our team tonight because especially in the second half we connected so well. Our backline is really solid and they forced Weddington’s attackers into some awkward shots at times. Some of those shots went over the bar or flew wide. Others came right to me and were relatively easy to stop.”
“It is pretty frustrating,” Weddington coach Powell Williams admitted to Blowing Rock News later. “You get down there in front of the net and get two-three-four-five chances at a time and the ball just won’t go in. Both teams played great. It was a good, physical game. The difference was going to be someone falling down and the ball not getting cleared…It is frustrating to lose when you think you deserved to win, but that Watauga team played great. It is a good win for them. When you get ‘out-physical-ed’ in certain parts of the game, especially in front of the goal, that is where it matters. Watauga has a big backline and their goalie (Haas) played well. So what are you going to do?”
Weddington matched up well with our speed. Their playing with a sweeper in the back pretty much took away all of our through-ball opportunities…They gave us one chance and we took advantage.
Few Opportunities, But Taking Advantage
Watauga head coach Chris Tarnowski conceded, “We didn’t do a very good job of winning possession, especially in that first half. The first 20 minutes or so was spent feeling them out and figuring out what they were going to bring to the table. Really, the X-factor for us was getting those nice counterattacks. Getting the ball up and into space. That serves us well. When you have speedsters like Bailey Whitehead-Price and Shaelyn Sheaff on the outside, you want to get the ball in front of them. Lily Suyao did a good job of getting those girls going.
“I told (our players) before the game,” Tarnowski recalled, “that once you hit the playoffs every (opponent is likely to be much more competitive). They come from a great conference. They had great touch. They have great speed and were in really good shape. You have to give (Weddington) a lot of credit. They played us hard.
“It was a great combination,” Watauga’s first-year head coach explained in describing the decisive second-half goal. “Any time you can get Bailey one-one-one…anytime we can slide that ball through (the defenders’ backline), we are definitely going to try. You have to give our forwards credit. (Weddington) did a good job all night kind of bottling us up, but (our forwards) making it count once they got the opportunity was really a difference maker.”
Talking about being ahead 1-0 in a hotly contested match with still more than 20 minutes to play, Tarnowski admitted, “We were happy to have the lead, but when it is tight (like that) it is a little nerve-wracking. You have to give a lot of credit especially to Cailey Haas in goal. She made some huge saves. And then, our defensive line…we have talked about them all season. All four are seniors and you have to give them a lot of credit, too. They stifled a whole lot of (Weddington) offense. (The Warriors) had a lot of offensive fire-power, so whenever we can get stops in the back, consistently, (that is a good thing).
“They gave us one chance and we took advantage,” Tarnowski smiled. “They matched up well with our speed and then their playing with a sweeper in the back, it pretty much took away all of our through-ball opportunities. We didn’t connect well (in the first half, but in the second half our girls kicked it into high gear. They put enough energy and effort into it to move (the ball). This win was definitely a player-win. They worked hard.”
With the win, Watauga (16-4 overall, 13-1 in Northwestern Conference play) advances to the second round, to be played on Friday. Kickoff at #4-seed Kings Mountain (17-2 overall, 14-0 in Big South 3A Conference play) is scheduled for 6:00 pm.