Funny how the little things make all the difference.
Just like an appropriate tip at the right time can lead to a better night at a restaurant or a hotel, a little change can make a big difference in a soccer game.
East Chapel Hill made an ever-so-small change in tactics Friday evening at Chapel Hill, and that led to a 2-1 victory for the 4A Wildcats over their cross-town rivals – the defending 3A state champions.
“Instead of trying to kill the ball and knock it behind the defense, we were looking for little, small passes,” East Chapel Hill head coach Austin Collins said. “On both our goals, we were able to get behind the defense with good passes, not big kicks.”
Collins observed that East Chapel Hill (6-1-1) and Chapel Hill (5-4-2) stayed neck and neck throughout the first half and much of the second – until the game’s 50th minute, when Emma Daum and Sierra Lindquist found a seam in the Tigers’ defense. Daum fed the ball to Lindquist just inside the 18-yard box, who slotted the game’s first goal, her seventh of the season.
“I saw the opening but I wasn’t sure about shooting. But it’s like they say: You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,” Lindquist said. “When it went in, it felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders.”
Three minutes later, the Wildcats caught Chapel Hill trying to push up and countered down their left side of the field. Lindquist fed the ball forward to Brynn Donnelly, who centered a pass to Daum. The team’s points leader (7 goals, 6 assists), Daum beat one defender into the box and sent a low shot into the net for a 2-0 East lead.
Donnelly’s assist was her seventh of the season, tops so far this year for East.
“We could have ended the game a lot better after that,” Collins said. “They kept the ball down at our end and made the game a lot more interesting than it should have been.”
Chapel Hill pressed forward in the game’s final 10 minutes, and this time maintained possession. In the 70th minute, the Tigers had two excellent chances on a corner kick and then a breakaway run into the penalty area, but neither resulted in a shot on goal.
The Tigers’ pressure paid off in the 74th minute, when they drew a free kick along the end line, just a few steps outside the area.
“Any time we have a free kick, Mia Spencer is going to take it,” Chapel Hill head coach Jason Curtis said.
Spencer showed why she’s Chapel Hill’s top gun by lofting a shot over two Wildcat defenders and barely an inch inside the near post, making it a 2-1 game with 6:11 left to play.
Chapel Hill thought it had tied the game with a goal by Lianna Malawski in the 76th minute, but it was waved offside.
In the final minute, Malawski went down after colliding with a Wildcat defender just outside the penalty area, drawing calls from the Tigers’ sideline for a card and a free kick, but they never got either. Time elapsed before the Tigers could set up a corner kick.
“We were on pins and needles for that last 6 minutes,” Collins said.
And that was a good thing, in some ways, he said.
“This was our first tough game since we played West Forsyth (in a 0-0 tie March 20) in The Brittany,” Collins said. “Our games since then haven’t been close.
“We have a huge conference game Monday with Jordan. Playing a good team like Chapel Hill before that, hopefully, will help us get ready.”
Due to the spring’s rainy weather, East played only four opponents between The Brittany invitational in Wilson and Friday’s game at Chapel Hill, winning them by a combined score of 30-1. Chapel Hill was only the second team to score on East so far this year, and the only one to do it in a close game.
“This year has been awful in terms of the weather, but it’s the same for everyone,” Curtis said. “And we’ve been luckier than most. Some teams that will get to play only 13 games because of all the games they’ve lost to weather already.”
Faced with playing conference games almost every other day for the rest of a reconfigured regular-season schedule, Chapel Hill will benefit from playing rivalry games like East Chapel Hill and Carrboro, Curtis said.
“These games are great. They get the intensity up in a way you don’t get in most conference games,” he said. “I look forward to playing East again at their place.”
Chapel Hill is scheduled to play at East Chapel Hill on May 1.