TYLER – It’s been said that the best view comes after the toughest climb. If so, Melissa’s Lady Cardinals can surely see for miles and miles after their gut-check 6-5 penalty-kick win over Spring Hill on Saturday. This climb, after all, in the Class 4A Region 2 soccer finals at Christus Trinity Mother Frances Rose Stadium, was as tough as they come.
After a near 3-hour weather delay, a physical 40 minutes of regulation play and two 10-minute overtime periods, Melissa and Spring Hill hadn’t settled a thing — and the tension was sky-high. Deadlocked, 2-2, with a trip to the state tournament at stake, the UIL-prescribed remedy was applied: penalty kicks — those point-blank shots at defenseless goalkeepers, with five alternating tries from five different players on each team. Miss one or two - or suffer a couple of saves - and your season is over.
Melissa goalkeeper Brittany Morgan indeed made two monster stops — on Spring Hill’s second and fifth tries — and one Lady Card kick sailed high, leaving PK goals even at three apiece with one try left in the session. Melissa’s Macie Robertson stepped to the mark as fans held their breaths and both teams locked arms on their respective sidelines. After a brief pause, Robertson fired home a low laser to left the corner of the net for the win – one that sent Melissa to the state tournament for the first time in program history. Jubilant, exhausted Lady Cards mobbed Robertson as Melissa fans lined the rails to get pictures.
“I was so nervous,” Robertson said. “I knew I always went to my one spot on the left side. I usually do it in the top corner but … I was scared it was going to go over. I did a little quick prayer in my head then I hit it to the left corner.”
Before Robertson’s decider, Hanna Waters, Reagan Eichel and Lucy Hurst booted home PKs for Melissa, keeping the pressure on.
“The last few weeks, we’ve trained for this moment,” Lady Cards head coach Manuel Avila said as his players basked in the victory. “I told the girls at the intermission, ‘We’re mentally tough, we’ve been working at this, we’ve been preparing for this. We’re ready.’ They just fought and fought and fought. I couldn’t be any more proud of them. … What’s amazing is, it’s just a group of babies - a bunch of freshmen on that field, working their tail off, absolutely loving every minute of it.
“I feel this weight lifted off of us. I looked at [assistant] Coach [Kelley] Pitzer and just embraced him. I knew that we finally did it. It’s hard to put into words how I feel right now. Exhausted, elated. … They were the toughest team we’ve faced in a long time. They probably have the most talented player we’ve played all year - Olyvia Dowell. She is as close to [2015 MHS grad] Emily Bates as we’ve seen in a long time.”
“It was back and forth, two good teams fighting it out,” Spring Hill head coach Jimmy Dowell said. “It’s a horrible way to lose a game when you lose on penalty kicks because it can be kind of a coin toss.”
Dowell’s daughter collected both Lady Panther goals in regulation and often danced past two and three defenders at a time. “She could just go through everybody,” Hurst said. “But we stayed together, the defense was strong and we fought to the very end. … We pulled through. It’s amazing.”
“[Dowell] was definitely the best player that we’ve seen so far,” defender Jenna Newkirk said. Said midfielder Reese Reddick, “It was very competitive. We stayed with them, but they were a good team too.”
Morgan played the entire match, collecting four saves including the PK stops, while Spring Hill’s goalie, with way more balls coming at her, tallied 12. Melissa outshot the Lady Panthers, 23-16, with an 18-9 edge in shots-on-goal.
“This whole time ‘Coach A’ was saying, ‘Forget me,’” Morgan said. “And he was right. All we had to focus on was our teammates and the people in front of us. That’s something that this team we played against didn’t have. They didn’t have the chemistry that we’ve created this year. … We deserved this and I’m excited to go to Georgetown. So is my whole team.”
When asked what was on her mind as she moved back into the net for PKs, Morgan became a bit emotional. “My dad,” she said. “He’s my biggest supporter, so knowing he was right there really helped me out.”
The Lady Panthers had defeated Midlothian Heritage in Friday’s semifinals, just before Melissa downed Paris, 2-0.
Spring Hill took a 1-0 lead over the Lady Cards with 23:16 left in the first half. Eichel answered 10 minutes later, spinning for a kick from 25 yards out on the right side.
Melissa went up, 2-1, midway through the second half when a Lady Panther knocked in an own-goal after Robertson deflected Eichel’s right-side corner kick. Melissa’s momentum was short-lived, though, as Dowell got loose for the equalizer three minutes later.
Lady Card defender Briley Bowen suffered an ankle injury in the second half and was helped from the field and onto a cart. Avila called her availability for the state tourney “questionable.”
Friday night, Melissa eased past Paris on two first-half goals, one by Waters, one by Hurst. Avila said he would’ve liked to have seen more from the Lady Cards. “I didn’t think we had our best game. We tried to make a couple of adjustments in personnel to see if we could get a little spark out of the team. It wasn’t that we played poorly, I just didn’t feel like we had the same spark we’ve had the last couple of games. We weren’t connecting passes quickly and a lot of that credit goes to [Paris] because they defended us in a certain way that we weren’t anticipating. … They defended very deep, they defended very compact.
“Obviously, we found a couple and kept a clean sheet. All those things are positives.”
Paris was out-shot 29-2 overall and 18-1 in shots-on-goal. Morgan was in-net for Melissa the whole way.
Waters’ goal came with 25:03 left before the break, a score set up by Hurst’s long pass from near midfield to Robertson running free down the right side. Robertson fired straight across to Waters in front of the net for the close-range shot.
“It was a phenomenal cross to me,” Robertson said. “I saw an open chance to run because the defender was more in.”
Thirteen minutes later, Eichel sent a ball inside from the right where Hurst picked it up and punched it in. Said Eichel, “[Paris] had, basically, two forwards and I think they just kind of parked the bus. It was hard for us to realize that at first — they just had so many defenders back there. Once we realized it, we were able to figure out how to get around them and it worked out.”
Melissa forward Payton Wallace was back from concussion protocol and played half of the first half and 25 minutes in the second.