To commemorate his team’s history-making accomplishment, Grace Christian skipper Roman Pibl was given the honor of choosing a site for a post-match celebration, and he decided on a strip mall not far off an exit of Interstate 40.
“They’ve got a place there that has smoothies,” Pibl said while offering directions to parents, fans and anyone else interested in joining the Eagles for a final bit of fun to cap off the school’s amazing 2016 girls soccer season.
Pibl’s pick was an ironic one, considering things haven’t always gone smoothly for the Grace Christian program that he helped form in 2009 – and stayed with through some difficult times.
Following the Eagles’ 2-0 victory over league rival and 1-seed St. David’s in Saturday’s championship game of the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 2A classification at Caldwell Academy, Pibl couldn’t help but reflect upon the not-so-glorious early days of Grace Christian soccer as his players proudly posed for pictures with the title plaque – before showering their coach with a can of multi-colored confetti.
“We’ve come a long way,” Pibl said. “I remember in those years, we couldn’t score goals. Like the whole year. We would score a goal, and everybody would go crazy like we had really done something. It’s pretty cool to see what we’ve done.”
Grace Christian (15-3-2) notched two markers in the All-Wake County finale, and that was enough to slide past the Warriors (13-5-1) in a tightly defended duel of Eastern Plains Independent Conference foes.
After a scoreless first half, the 3-seed Eagles broke through with a pair of tallies less than three minutes apart midway through the second half.
Micah King, a sophomore midfielder, used her 5-foot-10 frame to create some space in the box off a corner from teammate Lindsey Elvington, an eighth-grader.
Elvington’s perfectly placed corner found the head of King, who redirected the ball into the net for a stunning goal with 22:03 remaining in the contest.
“I had a (defender) on me as the ball came across the box,” King said. “I just tried to move for position and get my head on the ball.”
For a brief moment that seemed like forever to the Eagles’ players, King’s header bounced off the crossbar and went straight down to the line before spinning backward toward the twine.
“When it hit the ball, I was like ‘Lord, please let that ball roll into the net,’” King said
The goal seemed to deflate the Warriors, who had several solid chances in the opening half, but couldn’t finish. Pibl implored his players to keep up the pressure, and they responded by immediately embarking on another offensive surge.
At the 19:57 mark, Grace Christian gained some much-needed insurance when sophomore Alexis Lang pounced on a clear attempt about 30 yards from the goal and unleashed a low laser that quickly darted into the net for a 2-0 advantage.
“I just stepped in front of a pass and decided to let a shot go,” Lang said. “When it went in, I was so excited. It was important for us to be able to go up by two goals because (St. David’s) has a great team.”
Minutes later, the Eagles, with keeper Alexa Pibl keeping the Warriors off the scoreboard the rest of the way, were rushing on to the field to revel in a moment that hardly seemed plausible seven years ago. Grace Christian’s players saluted the school’s energetic student section, which brought plenty of spirit to the proceedings – along with an oversized American flag.
“This is a great thing for our school,” King said. “It means everything. I’ve been on this team since the eighth grade. I knew it would happen at some point. We’ve gotten better every year, so I had a feeling this could be the year.”
Grace Christian split with St. David’s one match apiece during the regular season, but the Warriors won the EPIC championship under coach Jennifer Partenheimer, who was part of a state title team at Apex in 2007 before playing at UNC-Greensboro.
The Eagles saved their best when it mattered most, allowing just goals over their last seven matches – and none during the final two matches of the state playoffs.
“These kids make my job easy,” Pibl said. “They are good, hard-working kids. We had already done better than we had ever done, so I think they were a little nervous this morning.”
At the conclusion of the match, both schools received their respective state plaques along with the announcement of the all-state team, which featured Grace Christian’s Lang and St. David’s Sarah Reynolds and Patterson Sheehan.
The post-match proceedings were emotional for Partenheimer, who had already stepped down at the conclusion of the season after four years. Partenheimer is moving to California soon to join her fianceé.
“I’m really proud of my girls,” Partenheimer said. “I’ve never been part of a team that had this much chemistry. This was an evenly played game between two very good teams. You win some and you lose some. If you are going to lose to someone, it might as well be somebody from your conference. I’m excited for Grace, though I would rather it have been us (hoisting the title plaque).”