NORTH RICHLAND HILLS — The third time is not always the charm — in soccer, or anything else.
That's an unfortunate truth experienced by Melissa's talented Lady Cardinals in crushing fashion on April 7 in the Class 4A Region I semifinals at Birdville ISD Fine Arts/Athletics Complex. In their third straight trip to the regional tournament, the Lady Cards' dreams would again go no further as this time Stephenville's Honeybees rallied for a 2-1 win over the match's final eight minutes. Making matters more heartbreaking for Melissa, the winning point came on an own-goal off a corner kick with 28 seconds left to play.
After 68 minutes of physical, scoreless soccer, the Lady Cards had taken a 1-0 lead on a header by senior Amanda Kocsis off a corner kick from fellow senior Josie Monk. In true storybook fashion, the goal was the 100th of Kocsis' career and it came on a kick from her best friend. But four minutes later, the made-for-movie script took an ominous turn when Melissa junior Sarah Weideman was called for pushing off while defending near the Lady Cards' goal. With exactly 8:00 showing on the second-half clock, Stephenville's Brinkley Harlow put the close-range, one-on-one penalty kick into the net and a gut-check finish was assured.
Knotted at 1-1, with overtime looming, the teams squared off over the final minutes in search of that precious game-winner, and with about 35 seconds left in regulation the Honeybees got their chance: a left-side corner kick by Hayleigh Beam. As the clock ticked down, Beam sent the ball to the front of Melissa's net, into a clashing crowd of defenders and attackers — and it caromed off a Lady Card's body for the decisive point.
There was little Melissa could do after that, as its fine season mercilessly wound to an end.
“The referee told us that she (Weideman) pushed off,” coach Manuel Avila said. “The assistant referee said that he didn't see the push off. He thought it was a fair play, a fair challenge. But the referee said, 'Well, he'd already made the call,' so he went with it. … I told the girls at halftime, this is one of those things, it's going to be a battle,” Avila said. “It's going to take one (goal) to win it. I didn't think that we'd give up the PK. You never think you're going to give up the penalty. Then, kind of a fluke goal there at the end. It just bounced the wrong direction off a defender and there's not much you can say. We gave up two goals that, honestly, any day of the week you don't give up. But today, they had chances, we had chances, and we thought that one was going to be enough, and it just wasn't today.”
Stephenville head coach Casey Weil noted that this will be the Honeybees' first trip to the regional finals. The Lady Cards have been once.
“Playing against a team like Melissa, we always love doing that,” he said. “We love playing against quality opponents. They are definitely that. They've got some girls that can play. I absolutely respect that team. They play soccer. They don't just sit back, they don't just kick the ball. They're a very, very good team.”
Weil said a low-scoring struggle was not unexpected.
“We had a couple of chances there in the first half that I thought we should have scored. It would've changed the game a little bit. I think they would have pressed a little bit more — had to have gone for it a little bit more, which obviously would have opened some stuff up for us on the back end. I was looking at (Melissa's) stats and they haven't allowed hardly any goals. I know we've played 26 games now and allowed six. … (Kendall Bates) and (Kocsis) that played for them are great players and you have to defend very well. I thought, defensively, we played very well.”
Melissa's Brittany Morgan and Stephenville's Madison Wyly were in goal for their respective teams this day and both were on top of their opponents' limited shots on goal. In the first half, the Honeybees appeared to be winning the possession fight, but for most of the second the Lady Cards often claimed the momentum.
Early on, no fewer than three Lady Cards went down after collisions/contested kicks with Stephenville players, and a couple of them continued to limp a bit throughout the match.
“It was extremely physical,” Avila said. “We knew that coming in, though. We played these girls a couple of years ago and that's exactly the way it was this time. … That's the way they play. The problem is, when our girls started fighting back, they didn't like us playing that way. I mean, tit-for-tat, but it's hard to say anything else against it. You want a physical battle, we'll give you one.”
Though disappointed with the result, Avila acknowledged that Melissa's program, now just three years old, is clearly on the right track.
“They're playing well,” he said. “They're playing good soccer and we've got a middle-school program that's looking pretty strong. So it's got a lot of promise for the future.”
And if you hadn't heard, the fourth time can sometimes be the charm.