In its second round game of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A state playoffs against visiting Jack Britt Friday night, the Clayton girls soccer team must have at least had the thought come across their collective mind that it wasn’t their night.
Despite dominating play over the game’s first 54 minutes, all the Comets had to show for their efforts were near misses that hit the posts (twice), the crossbar (once), one shot destined for goal cleared off the line by a Buccaneer defender and one disallowed goal.
However, what appeared to be a harmless attempt at goal and some wishful thinking from Emery Biggs gave the Greater Neuse River champions the lead and the Comets broke through for the 3-1 win, advancing to the third round for the first time in school history.
Leah Rodgers slid the ball over to Biggs in the middle of the pitch but the sophomore midfielder was some 30-plus yards out when she took a shot that first skipped and then slithered right through the arms of Jack Britt goalkeeper Lauryn Harding.
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Clayton coach Brian Stevens credits his team’s patience and belief in the game plan to not panic when not finding the back of the net sooner.
“At halftime, I just had to calm them down and told then that we were doing everything right and I told them to just keep doing it,” Stevens said. “I told them to keep winning balls in the midfield and to keep counterattacking. If we can apply pressure up high, our midfield wins and then we have so much speed that we counterattack very quickly and that’s what we did.”
The surprise goal not only gave Clayton (22-1) the lead, but the lift it needed from knowing more goals were there for the taking.
Janelle Reid, who had been a handful to deal with all game long for the visitors, doubled the lead when Kendall Gillespy gave her a perfect through pass less than four minutes after Biggs’ strike and Reid converted for the 2-0 lead.
“We knew playing those through balls past the back line, that we had the speed on the outside,” said Reid. “Kendall does a good job sending us those through balls. We were sending them too far (in the first half) and the goalie was getting them so we had to take a little bit off so we could run on to them.”
The Buccaneers, limited to five long shots on goal all night long, were presented an opportunity to stay within reach as Clayton was whistled for a handball in their box. Rianna Orello converted the penalty kick to draw Jack Britt (15-7-1) to within 2-1 with 12 minutes left to play.
The Buccaneers would not be allowed to get another crack at goal, however, and Reid paved the way to the third round when she redirected Holland Mills’ cross from the right wing past Harding yet again for the clincher in the 74th minute.
The Comets finished with 20 shots including 11 on goal as opposed to the Buccaneers’ six attempts, most not troubling Clayton keeper Logan Haag.
Despite the focus being on all of the missed offensive opportunities for Clayton for much of the game, the key may have been in the Comets’ defense shutting down of the prolific Jack Britt tandem of Callie Creech and Orello.
Creech entered the game with a team leading 40 goals on the season and Orello had managed 20 but, aside from Orello’s goal from the penalty spot, the duo was held in check.
Stevens described Peyton Doyle as “the hidden hero” and the sophomore defender came through with the task of shadowing Creech who managed just one shot on target all night. Sophia Woznichak similarly succeeded in shutting down the playmaker Orello.
“I think it was a complete effort,” Stevens said. “I got great defensive play, I had great midfield play and we got plenty of opportunities up top through quality movement.
“It was just sinking the ball in the back of the net took a lot longer than it should have.”
At the beginning of the season, Stevens approached his senior class and gave them the option of either going through the motions and having a solid, yet unspectacular season or for them to work hard and prepare mentally and physically for a deep run in the playoffs.
The group chose the latter and the underclassmen have followed suit.
“I want to do this for the seniors on this team,” said Reid, a sophomore. “They’re the heart of this team – all seven of them. We worked so hard this season and to be here where we are right now, it’s amazing.”