Starr’s Mill and Whitewater split Thursday night’s doubleheader between soccer superpowers, helping crystallize the state playoff picture with the regular season winding down.
In the girls game, the Lady Wildcats extended their unbeaten season (14-0-1) with a 3-0 win over the Panthers, sewing up another region championship in the process. Starr’s Mill (6-8-1) will be a three seed coming out of the region, with McIntosh in second and Fayette County in fourth.
“The girls have been playing very well. They came out today pretty focused,” said Whitewater coach Randy Hayes. “Coming back from spring break, you don’t know which team is going to show up, and our A team showed up tonight.”
The run to the region crown started with an embarrassing debut. A 4-1 loss to Greater Atlanta Christian way back in an exhibition match revealed the drive and determination of the team.
“After that, they said ‘Let’s go. We’re not going to be that team,’” remembered Hayes. “They changed their whole outlook. They’ve been working extremely hard and playing very well.”
The Wildcats set out to suffocate a talented Panther offense, and they did just that. When she was needed, keeper Emma Fulton was spot on.
“They’ve got some really good players, but we were able to contain them,” said Hayes. “We made some good saves that turned the tables on them.”
The early stages of the game saw the Cats narrowly miss on multiple opportunities. Camille Messina put a pair of passes in the box, but one Abbie Crane shot would be cleared out by Lauren Avidano, and the second missed a streaking teammate by mere inches.
They busted loose in the 20th minute, Jolie Ryff scorching a shot from well outside the box into the top right corner just past the keeper. Five minutes later it would be Ally Smithwick picking up a loose Emily Petersen corner kick in a crowd and poking it home for a 2-0 advantage.
The two-goal advantage would hold into the second half. Starr’s Mill surged out of the break, stringing together good looks on goal. Sky Dedrick played a through ball to Avidano in the box, but Kaitlin O’Connor and Bailey Vessell clamped down and turned it away. Ansley Peurifoy followed with a run, but her shot trickled a touch too far to the right. Their next opportunity came as Alivia Sapienza set up Kaleigh Ward, whose shot sailed just high of the goal.
Whitewater regrouped on both ends, shutting down the Panther attack again. Their offense added insurance in the 73rd minute with a successful Camille Messina strike.
Under pressure all night, keeper Spencer Dawson notched 10 saves for the Panthers.
In the boys game, the Panthers (11-3-1) clawed their way to two second half goals and a 2-1 win, clinching the two seed from the region and at least one home playoff game. Whitewater (8-6) will be the three seed, with McIntosh in first and Fayette County in fourth.
“I’m proud of the boys. It wasn’t very pretty, but it was effective,” said Starr’s Mill coach Mike Hanie.
It just wasn’t Whitewater’s night, as they would find out early. In the game’s second minute, the Cats scorched a shot that ricocheted of the post and stayed in play to be cleared by the Panthers.
Keepers Michael Lantz and Taylor Goodwin also each had their share of clutch saves throughout the match to add to the offensive frustrations.
An opening half of close calls closed out with a Jack Chenette goal to put Whitewater ahead 1-0 with under two minutes remaining.
Their misfortune resurfaced early in the second half as they evened the score for the Panthers on an own goal.
The officials tried to keep a physical game from getting too chippy late. They dealt one yellow card to Whitewater in the first half and two in the second half, along with a red card for Jon Bloch. Starr’s Mill got hit with two late yellows.
Starr’s Mill’s offense finally got a goal of their own in the 74th minute, and it was well worth the wait. Freshman Leo Bueno started a give-and-go, and, upon receipt of the second pass, he fired an absolute laser from way outside the box perfectly placed into the upper left corner of the goal where the keeper had no shot to stop it.
“We had a game plan to try to work it out wide. We struggled a little bit trying to find those wide players,” said Hanie. “Leo scored a goal to save it for us.”
Neither team mounted a serious challenge in the waning moments as the Panthers held on for the 2-1 victory.
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