After sharing the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference title they had dominated in recent years, West Johnston relished the third try the Wildcats were given against rival Garner in the second round of the 4A girls soccer playoffs Saturday afternoon.
“They were hoping to play this game,” said West coach Reid Byrd, whose team matched Garner’s 12-1-1 record but went 0-1-1 against their second round hosts on Saturday. “And it wasn’t Knightdale they wanted to play. They just wanted a chance to play this game.”
And after a penalty kick gave Garner a 1-0 lead less than two minutes into the match, the Wildcats made every opportunity count earning a 3-1 victory and a third round date with Panther Creek this week.
West didn’t score for the game’s first 38 minutes but kept Garner’s offense in check for almost all of the remaining half of play. Mallory Barton pulled the Wildcats even with 2:02 to play in the first half, pushing home a 25-yard blast from the right side.
The goal followed two point blank saves on great West scoring chances by Trojans’ keeper Elizabeth Pittman. Pittman made diving saves on shots inside of the goal box by Kristin Power and Barton within 45 seconds of each other.
And while West’s scoring chances increased, Garner’s decreased throughout the afternoon. Aside from a one-on-one chance from Bayleigh Adams that sailed high with 28 minutes to play, Garner couldn’t crack the Wildcats defense. Adams had earned the Trojans’ penalty kick, which Michaela Wycoff converted early in the game.
“Every game we’ve been trying to get an early goal and we finally got a break and got one,” said Garner coach Joe Dennis. “The bad thing is that it came in our last match.”
“Our defense played together,” Byrd said. “The last time we played, Garner played great, but our defense wasn’t clicking. Today, we came out of the gate solid and stayed that way.”
The Wildcats added a new wrinkle to their defense as well, sliding midfielder MacKenzie Barber back nearer the defensive back line. The play helped stiffen the Wildcats’ defense but it also helped get West into offensive mode quicker when they tried to flip the field after a Garner offensive push.
“That helped our offense as well,” Byrd said. “When the defense stopped the ball, we were able to make that transition easier.”
West went ahead with 19 minutes to play when freshman Robin Pollard lofted a long ball into the penalty area from the far right sideline. Barton got a head on it and sent a perfectly arched ball over a leaping Pittman and under the crossbar.
“It looked like a long shot to try it but Robin did a great job of playing it into the box and Mallory just stayed with it and put the perfect head on it,” Byrd said.
West would add its third goal with 12:12 to play when Aliana Custer picked up a goal when a Garner defender deflected the ball into the goal.
The goal helped ensure West’s its 21st victory in 24 tries this season and a coveted third round berth. It ended Garner’s thrilling year. The Trojans finished 13-6-1 and lose a dozen players to graduation.
“The loss will be what they remember today and tomorrow but they’ll think back and realized what we accomplished,” Dennis said of his team. “They’re realize there’s nothing to be ashamed of about this year.”