As she leapt into the air, Whitewater junior midfielder Madison Wright couldn’t contain her excitement. Drenched in sweat and exhibiting the battle scars of an all-out war with Starr’s Mill, Wright was in shock.
The Lady Wildcats had just pulled off an improbable 3-0 win over Lady Panthers in front of a rabid crowd. In enemy territory, Whitewater advanced past last year’s Final Four demise and punched their ticket to the Class AAAAA state championship game. What awaits next is a battle with their other rival, the McIntosh Chiefs, on Friday at Mercer University.
“It is unbelievable, and we have been working for this all season,” Wright said. “Last season, we fell in the Final Four and we knew we weren’t going to let that happen this year.”
Wright was crucial in propelling Whitewater into the championship round. She scored 3 goals, earning a hat trick against Starr’s Mill. Wright utilized her elite speed to burn Panther defenders all night.
In the first half, Wright put the Wildcats on the board with a powerful shot in the back of the net. It came as she dodged through the middle of the field and found the right-corner for her 7th goal of the season. She added two more goals, in the 35th and 48th minute, to give Whitewater a 3-0 advantage.
“Going to the state championship is everybody’s biggest dream, and I am so excited right now,” Wright said. “I can’t believe I got a hat trick, and this is the best day ever. It wasn’t just me, but it was my whole team as we just worked together to push it.”
The goals fueled a relentless Whitewater defense. The Wildcats controlled the majority of the field with suffocating pressure. On set pieces, they pushed up on Starr’s Mill’s strikers and contained crosses near the goal.
The Panthers struggled to counter the defensive strategy. They got a handful of shots on goal, but they were quickly saved by the goalie Abby Grandea.
Whitewater head coach Randy Hayes was proud of the team’s complete effort and is excited to be moving to the championship game.
“We knew we could take Starr’s Mill after we came out last time and played them even in a 1-1 battle,” Hayes said of the regular season matchup that Starr’s Mill won in PKs. “Tonight, we knew we had to come out and finish goals to win. I was proud of their ability to finish the ball.”
The Final Four win is a culmination of the last 365 days for the Wildcats. Since coming up short last season, they pushed themselves to get back to this game. Hayes scheduled the best opponents to test his team at all points. Whitewater played Parkview and Harrison tough earlier in the season. They also stayed in the game with Marist. Each of those teams made the playoffs in their respective classifications.
In those losses, the Wildcats learned how to overcome adversity and compete with great teams. It helped give them confidence, and they responded by winning their last 13 games. Hayes believes they can get one more against McIntosh.
“We will go in prepared to take it,” Hayes said. “The girls believe in themselves, and I think they went out and proved it time after time.”
McIntosh won’t be an easy opponent, as the winners of the last two state titles beat Whitewater 3-0 in the regular season. Yet, Wright knows the team has a completely different mentality. They want to win this one for their coach, who has been a part of Wildcat teams that lost five straight times in the state championship game.
“We didn’t start off the season very well, but we are ready to win state this year,” Wright said. “It feels great to beat Starr’s Mill, and now we are ready to beat McIntosh.”
As for Hayes, he said that the McIntosh match will be one of the biggest games of his career.
“It would be the crown jewel in my coaching career,” Hayes said. “McIntosh has beat me twice via penalty kicks (in championships), and I want to get back and win. I am real excited, and the girls are excited to play in the championship.”
Starr’s Mill boys fall 4-1 to Johnson-Gainesville
The magical season for the Starr’s Mill boys soccer team has come to an end. The Panthers were defeated 4-1 by the Johnson-Gainesville Knights on Tuesday night.
The Panthers started out aggressive against the Knights. They had several clean looks at the goal, but missed on connecting the shots. There seemed to be a proverbial lid on the net as shots bounced just wide of going in.
Starr’s Mill took the first two shots of the match with junior Noah Pavel missing a clean chance right of the goal in the 5th minute and senior striker Sam Pompeo missing in the 7th minute. Both shots were close, but it wasn’t meant to be for the Panthers early on in the game.
“I thought we created a lot of opportunities to score four goals, but they are a good team,” Hanie said. “They worked the ball around on us.”
Johnson-Gainesville made it difficult on Starr’s Mill as the game wore on. They controlled the pace with strong runs and set pieces. They also extended the Panther’s coverage to create easier angles at the net for goals.
In the 18th minute, they got their first goal as Michael Garcia broke a scoreless tie. The Panthers quickly responded with their best chance of the night, as Ryan Shanahan and Pompeo played a nice two-man game to get free for a score. Yet, the ball careened off the goal post and it kept the game at 1-0.
The Knights took advantage and headed in the locker room with the lead. In the 65th minute, they added a second goal.
The Panthers finally scored in the 75th minute off a corner kick to get on the board. However, it was a little to late to make a comeback.
“We had chances to score three or four goals and we didn’t just take the chances,” Hanie said. “The chances they created, they scored some very nice goals. They shut down a lot of players, and we really made some poor passes that we normally make. We didn’t play the feet and we struggled a little bit.”
Starr’s Mill reached the semifinals for the first time since 2013. They finished 15-9 and ended their season as one of the top teams in Class AAAAA. They will return several key players next year in Pavel, Shanahan, Will Anong, and star goalie Andrew Cole. All are riding a wave of momentum with Cole saving 16 shots on 20 attempts and Pavel and Shanahan showcasing their goal scoring ability.
After the game, Hanie told the team he was proud of their successful year. He acknowledged that they played outstanding for a young squad with just four seniors.
“We are proud of the way they supported each other and battled through the season,” Hanie said.
To see more photos from the night’s action, click here.