SOCCER: Familiar formula carries Polk County to playoff-opening victory

Published 8:27 am Tuesday, May 16, 2023

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Polk County’s girls soccer season, and its eight-match winning streak in particular, have followed a particular formula.

Monday’s 2-0 win over Newton-Conover in the first round of the state 2A playoffs in G.M. Tennant Stadium was more of the same.

A goal from a strong push in the middle feeding to speedy players on the outside? Check. Charley Dusenbury started a break, fed to Susanna Ashworth, who was streaking down the home side, and who came close to finishing before Hayden Blackwell banged in the rebound to give the Wolverines a 1-0 second-half lead.

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Strong defense led by Maggie McCammon in goal? Yep. She recorded another clean sheet and made probably a half-dozen saves, none more important than a diving effort with 14 minutes to play on a ball that would have knotted the score.

A goal from the team’s leading scorer? Got that, too. Caroline Taylor calmly tucked a free kick into the top corner with less than 10 minutes remaining to double the lead and essentially put the game away.

It all added up to a first-round victory, which is a trend in itself. The Wolverines (17-3-1) have never lost a playoff-opening matchup under coach Lennox Charles, a record that now stands at 20 in a row.

Yet despite appearances, and that familiar pattern, it wasn’t easy.

The Wolverines were tantalizingly close in the match’s second 10 minutes. After a back-and-forth battle to open the match, Polk County seemed to settle in. Dusenbury had a promising run stopped in the 11th minute of the first half. Thirty seconds later, she hit the far post with a floater, narrowly missing a goal. A corner in the 14th minute came up empty. Gabby Savaia’s chance in the 18th minute was snuffed out by good Newton-Conover defense. Nobody could get a foot on a point-blank rebound on an empty net in the 20th minute, and Dusenbury sailed a shot wide a minute later.

“I really felt like if we couldn’t have gotten a ball in the goal, it would have really changed the whole momentum of the match,” Charles said. “We were having the better of the game, and if we could have finished one, it would have really changed things. The longer we went and we didn’t finish one, it gave them some confidence and then I thought the last 15 minutes, they had the better of the half.”

The Red Devils (13-7) seemed like they were hanging on. Then, suddenly, they were almost in the lead.

Newton-Conover was awarded a corner kick in the 24th minute, played a short pass, and Talyn Propst rifled a shot off the crossbar. Polk County sometimes seemed seconds from disaster for much of the rest of the first half, something Charles attributed to the Red Devils’ attacking scheme.

“They did an unbelievable job of getting to the ball, attacking the ball, being aggressive,” he said. “I could tell our confidence was down just because we were pressured so much. It’s like basketball. When you’re being pressed, it makes you feel like you have less time than you do, so you hustle stuff, you’re not sure with passes. They did a really good job with that, and really kind of took the momentum at the end of the first half.”

In the second half, though, it was Polk County applying the pressure. A corner kick in the third minute of the half led to a scoring chance seconds later, with a handball in the penalty box against Newton-Conover appearing to go uncalled. Dusenbury’s run to start the scoring started just minutes later. She took possession near midfield, raced up the middle, and fed to Ashworth, who blasted a shot right at the Red Devils’ keeper. It was saved, but bounced away and allowed Blackwell an easy clean-up for the goal.

“We were having success getting balls down there, and doing a better job winning across the middle,” Charles said. “Creating those opportunities seemed to give our girls a little more belief.”

The teams exchanged shots in the 14th minute before Savaia hit the post with an effort a few minutes later. Another errant corner led to Newton-Conover’s last, best chance, a breakaway that was stonewalled by McCammon.

“She’s done that for us all season,” Charles said. “We’ve had games where we’ve kind of dominated, but gave up a chance or two, and she’s made big saves. She’s done that all season long, and she’s improved dramatically for us this year. She’s so smart, and she’s worked hard, and she’s made a huge difference for us this year.”

That left Taylor’s late goal. At Charles’ direction, she asked the referee to walk off the allotted 10 yards between her spot and the Red Devils’ defensive wall. Then, she calmly lofted the ball over and tucked it in.

“George (assistant coach George Alley) was yelling at her to ask (the official) for her 10,” Charles said. “The way she hit it, floating it into the top corner, you need some room to get it over the wall. When he walked it off, they walked up two yards again. I think that two yards probably made a huge difference. She just put it on goal. She didn’t try to kill it. We talk about it sometimes, just be accurate. And she was.”

Now, the Wolverines will hit the road to take on a familiar foe. They’ll travel to Hendersonville, 8-0 winners over Southwestern Randolph in the first round, for Thursday’s second-round matchup. After a Covid-related end to the season in 2021 and missing the playoffs last season, Charles said there’s no place they’d rather be.

“It’s super satisfying, especially after last year,” he said. “And then for this group of seniors, to struggle the way they did last year, and the year before to win a playoff game and have the season cut short because somebody tested positive and have to forfeit, the last two seasons have been challenging. This makes the season a good season for us. We moved from fifth to second, we’ve run a first-round game.

“You don’t want to be too satisfied, you want to go give it your best shot, but I feel good for the girls. Because even if it ends on Thursday, this is heaven compared to what they’ve had to deal with the past two years.”