Wednesday, May 18, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Lady Panthers vie for first soccer state title

Leader sportswriter

Last week the Cabot girls’ soccer team already did something the program’s never done before by advancing to the semifinals of the state tournament. But in last Saturday’s Class 7A semifinal at Springdale Har-Ber, the Lady Panthers one-upped that accomplishment by beating No. 1 West seed Fayetteville 4-3 in double overtime to advance to Friday’s 10 a.m. state championship game against Bentonville.

In the semifinal win over Fayetteville (16-4-1), No. 1 East seed Cabot (20-4) scored two quick goals to lead 2-0 early. The Lady Panthers’ first goal was scored in the first five minutes of action by Hadley Dickinson, and CHS leading scorer Tristyn Edgar added the next goal 10 minutes later to put the top East seed up 2-0.

Cabot’s intensity level during that span was very high, and the Lady Panthers were unable to maintain it as the game progressed. Fayetteville scored its first goal before halftime to make it 2-1 at the break, and the Lady Bulldogs scored the first two goals of the second half, the second of which came with about eight minutes to play and gave Fayetteville a 3-2 lead.

Edgar scored her second goal of the game with four minutes left, tying the game at 3-3 and eventually sending it to overtime. Neither team scored in the first 10-minute overtime period, but with about four-and-a-half minutes remaining in the second overtime period, Cabot freshman Gracen Turner buried the game-winning goal into the upper right corner of the goal from inside the 18-yard line to send the Lady Panthers to their first-ever state championship game.

Bentonville’s semifinal game against No. 1 Central-seeded Bryant was also won in overtime. After two scoreless halves and two scoreless overtime periods, that semifinal game was decided by penalty kicks, and the No. 2 West-seeded Lady Tigers (19-2-1) won the semifinal shootout 5-4, handing Bryant (20-1-1) its first loss of the season.

Cabot and Bentonville share several common opponents this season. They each have played Maumelle, Bryant, Fayetteville, Fort Smith Northside and Rogers Heritage. Cabot’s only loss against those teams was 3-0 against Bryant, and Bentonville’s lone in-state loss was to Fayetteville on May 6 in the 7A-West regular-season finale.

Fayetteville’s margin of victory against Bentonville in the regular-season finale was greater than Bentonville’s win over the Lady Bulldogs, which gave Bentonville the No. 2 West playoff seed.

Bentonville’s win over Fayetteville came in early April, and Cabot didn’t play its starters in their normal positions against Bryant because it was a nonconference game and Cabot head coach Kerry Castillo didn’t want to give Bryant their normal look in case they were to meet again in the playoffs.

Cabot has spent this week practicing on a grass field in preparation for Friday’s game, which will be played on the grass University of Arkansas soccer field. Castillo and his team have also spent the week watching film on their opponent, and Castillo said the level at which Bentonville is able to possess the ball is a big part of what’s led to the Lady Tigers’ success this season.

“They really possess the ball well,” said Castillo of Bentonville. “They possess the ball well enough that if teams aren’t disciplined defensively then they can get pulled out of defensive shape, and they’ve got some really good attacking players that take advantage of that.

“They can get you isolated with them versus one of yours, just one versus one, and they really take good advantage of that. But it’s because of the possession that can get you in those circumstances. So we’ve got our work cut out for us. It’s going to be a really good match.”

Cabot and Bentonville makes for an interesting matchup, but not just for their talent levels. Their styles of play are also very different.

“It’s totally two different styles,” Castillo said. “We possess the ball pretty well, but we’re a little more of a counter-attack team and they’re more of a possession-style team. I thought Bryant played them well in a zero-zero match. Bryant had some really good chances to score, but just two really good teams going at it I guess. That tells me if they can hold Bryant to a scoreless draw and hold Fayetteville to a scoreless game in one match and go to penalties in another, then defensively they’re really organized. We’re going to have to be precise. We’re going to have to be really accurate.”

The Lady Tigers have scored 67 goals this season – an average of 3.4 per game. They’ve also totaled 35 assists, which shows how well they possess and pass the ball. Bentonville’s leading scorer is sophomore forward Alissa Carlson, who’s totaled 22 goals this season.

Senior midfielder/co-captain Melanie Matkins is the Lady Tigers’ second-leading scorer with 11 goals. Both have stood out on film, according to Castillo, as well as Bentonville’s defenders.

“They have a midfielder and a forward that are both really good attackers,” Castillo said of Matkins and Carlson, “and then on the back they’re just always organized. We’re going to have to create good chances and take advantage of the ones that we do create, because for both teams it might be few and far between.”

Even though Cabot is more of a counter-attack type of team, its offense has been very prolific this season. The Lady Panthers enter Friday morning’s title game having scored 94 goals, more than a third of which have been scored by Edgar.

With the two she scored last Saturday against Fayetteville, Edgar has totaled 34 goals this season, which easily leads the team. Cabot’s second-leading scorer is junior Hadley Dickinson, who’s scored 18 goals this year. Dickinson has also dished out 17 assists, which ranks second on the team.

The Lady Panthers’ leader in assists is senior Maddie Rice, who averages an assist a game with 24 on the season. She’s also fourth on the team in goals scored with 10. Turner, one of the Lady Panthers’ promising freshmen, is third on the team in goals scored with 12.

Cabot’s next two-highest scorers are junior Leelee Denton and freshman Brooklyn Stracener. Denton has eight goals this season and Stracener is right behind her with seven. Denton has also dished seven assists this season and so has Edgar.

Edgar and Dickinson lead Cabot’s high-scoring offense, but the defense has helped set up a lot of scoring chances this year.

“Joelle Long, Allyson Mar-shall, Kristen Oitker, Alexis Dang,” Castillo said of his biggest contributors on defense. “Leah Conley contributes there. Brooklyn Stracener contributes there.

“I’ve coached a lot of these girls since they were 12 and 13. So they know what I’m going to ask of them defensively – to be tough and to be brave, to go into tackles and to basically keep us in the game defensively and to work hard.”

Castillo called Long and Oitker the anchors of his defense.

“Joelle and Kristen, they’re our center backs,” Castillo said. “They’re our anchors defensively. They’re just good leaders. They’re both captains on the team and they lead us from back there. They encourage the girls that are in front of them, play different positions. They’re always communicating and they’re like our field generals.

“Allyson Marshall’s a senior and Alexis Dang is a junior. They’ve both just been solid for us this year. As we’ve played this year they’ve both continued to improve. Game after game they get more brave with the challenges that they go into.

“A lot of times they take a lot of physical play, head-to-head collisions or a ball hit into their face and they just stay with it. They don’t complain. They stay brave in there and make good tackles for us, and it gives us the ability to attack as much as we do because they win the ball back for us.”

Another promising freshman for CHS is goalkeeper Maggie Martin, who had one of her best games in the semifinals against Fayetteville.

“She has done such an amazing job,” Castillo said of Martin. “Some of the instances that she’s been put into – penalty kick shootouts, playoff games against Fayetteville when you’ve given up three goals and your team is down, and to stay in the game emotionally and mentally, she shows the composure of an upperclassman. She’s got a grit about her.

“She made some saves that would have won the game in overtime for Fayetteville, but she made some saves and got us out of that situation and another ninth grader (Turner) wins the game. Imagine what those kids will do when they’re juniors and seniors. There will be colleges certainly looking at them by the time they’re juniors and seniors.”

Cabot’s last loss was pretty recent. After rolling through the 7A/6A-East Conference with an unbeaten record, the Lady Panthers dropped a 2-1 game at Little Rock Central, a team they beat 3-1 last month.

The Lady Panthers won their final two regular-season games by the final score of 6-1 to win the conference championship outright and claim the No. 1 state tournament seed from the East.

Cabot followed those wins with its two playoff wins over Northside and Fayetteville. Many of the Cabot players’ immediate reaction after the loss to Central resembled reaction to a playoff loss rather than a regular-season game.

A lot of that frustration stemmed from being beaten by a team they knew they could beat, according to Castillo.

“I think it was more they knew they should’ve won the match,” Castillo said. “We had majority of possession and we had enough opportunities to score, we just didn’t do enough with it.

“I think them losing to a team we outplayed in the match and could have won the conference that night, I think it really motivated them to go on and beat North Little Rock handily. And also I think it kind of made them mad and encouraged them, after seeing film, that hey, this is what we’re capable of. We have to strike when we can and take advantage of the opportunities that we get.

“That is probably the thing that I saw most out of Friday and Saturday, was that when we had a chance to score they put it away.”

In order for the Lady Panthers to be successful this coming Friday, Castillo said the ultimate key is to stay disciplined and composed.

“Stay disciplined and composed,” Castillo said. “The emotions of the game – it’s graduation day for our seniors. They know this chapter of their life is coming to an end and for some of them this is going to be the last soccer game that they play.

“For them that’s going to be very emotional and with the highs and lows that the game can present us they’ve got to stay composed, and within that stay disciplined as a team. That’ll be one of the biggest tests.”