GEORGETOWN – The Melissa Lady Cardinals’ school record post-season run has ended one step short of a Class 4A state title match at Georgetown’s Birkelbach Field. It was Liberty Hill who prevailed, 2-1, over the Lady Cards after building a two-goal lead that held into the game’s 77th minute.

Freshman Payton Wallace’s goal with 3:45 left to play had raised Melissa’s hopes for a late miracle, but it was not to be. As the match’s final five seconds bled away, reality hit for the Lady Cards and their devoted fans: This chapter was over, and it hurt. Another reality, though, soon became clear: This program is loaded for the near future, and perhaps well beyond.

“I’ve got three seniors,” Melissa head coach Manuel Avila said. “At the end of the game I had seven freshmen on the field. We’re going to be back. This was just a great experience for them. It was a learning experience for all of them. Obviously, it sucks for our seniors. But I told them coming in that they had done something that no other group of seniors had ever done. They made it. It’s something to really be proud of. … And they fought to the last minute. Even down to the last minute we kept thinking, ‘Maybe we’re going to get one.’

“All in all, we were proud of our performance. We don’t have anything to hang our heads about. We had a great season and we’re here at the state tournament.”

“It’s been a ball,” Melissa ISD superintendent Keith Murphy said of the Lady Cards’ run. “I’ll tell you, I’m so proud of our three seniors [Brittany Morgan, Reagan Eichel, Grace Tegerdine] - those three girls and a bunch of freshmen and Coach Manny and what they’ve done. … We love them and we’re blessed and we’re proud of them all. These girls got outscored today but I’m going to tell you something - in life, they’ll never be defeated.”

Liberty Hill head coach Darren Bauer noted his team’s missed chances in the first half: two close-range shots that sailed high and another that hit a post. “You hope it doesn’t come back to bite you at the end,” he said. “Luckily, today it didn’t.”

Regarding the Lady Cards, Bauer said, “We knew they were going to be athletic and physical, which is exactly what they were today. We knew they weren’t going to give up. … It was a great battle. Unfortunately today for them, we put two away and they only got one.”

This was the Lady Cards’ first-ever appearance in the state tournament, and the second for Liberty Hill (24-2-2) who fell in the 2018 semifinals.

“We knew they were good defensively,” Avila said. “Our approach was to try to come out and high-pressure them. We didn’t have our best day doing that. Honestly, we thought we could do a little bit better job. But it seemed like we just couldn’t get a handle.”

Melissa (21-1-2) totaled 12 shots-on-goal to the Lady Panthers’ 8 and each team garnered two corner-kicks. Both goalkeepers - Brittany Morgan for the Lady Cards and Liberty Hill’s Samantha Carter - went the distance.

The Lady Cards opened the match with plenty of offensive pressure but by the fourth minute in Liberty Hill had flipped the field bit. Lady Panther Brooke Briscoe finally broke through for a left-side goal from 15 yards out with 19:42 left in the first half.

With under four minutes remaining before the break, Melissa nearly got the equalizer on Reese Reddick’s shot off a free-kick deflection – but Carter kept it out. Lucy Hurst had another chance for the Lady Cards with 15 seconds left in the half but her 10-yard boot from the left side was saved as well.

Liberty Hill’s second goal came 15 minutes into the second half - and it very nearly wasn’t one as Morgan made a herculean effort to stop it. Lady Panther Kendal James took the 15-yard shot from the right side. Morgan got a hand on the ball then ran to the stop it as it careened toward the goal line near the left post. With a diving swing at the ball, Morgan appeared to keep it out but the assistant referee ruled it a goal.

Avila called the play “really, really close,” adding, “I really thought she had saved it, bouncing off the post. But the AR was in a great position. As a former referee, that was the first thing I looked at. … So it must’ve just gone over.”

Down, 2-0, as the clock ticked under four minutes left to play, the Lady Cards desperately fought to find a goal. Hurst was able to battle through two defenders and send the ball to Hanna Waters, who was in traffic as well. Waters chipped it over to Wallace on the left side and she got past the final defender for Melissa’s first-ever state tournament goal.

With under a minute remaining, the Lady Cards got a last-gasp chance at overtime but Waters’ free kick from the right side from 30 yards out was well-defended and Liberty Hill managed to run out the clock.

“It meant a lot,” Eichel said of Melissa’s memorable season. “I had a great group of friends. We really wanted it this year and we worked hard for it. I’m happy that we got here. We didn’t get what we wanted but we made it and that’s what matters. … It was stressful, honestly. We kind of got together as a team towards the end but it just wasn’t enough.”

Wallace agreed the match was stressful. “And it took a lot of work,” she said. “I hope we can do this each and every year of my high school career.” As for her goal, Wallace said, “I was just very happy and excited. I was glad we finally got one in.”

Said Waters of Liberty Hill’s defense, “They were really compact and they were really good. It took a lot of us to get around them. They defended really well. If we had played like we did in probably the last five minutes we probably would have won the game. … I hope we come back next year. I hope we started a trend and it’s only up from here.”