SOCCER: Second-half strikes lift Polk County past Thomas Jefferson

Published 12:03 pm Tuesday, May 21, 2024

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By Jed Blackwell


Gabby Savaia didn’t see the shot go in that propelled Polk County to a 2-0 win over Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy in the third round of the state 1A soccer playoffs.

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She knew she’d hit it, but thought it might be wide. And, in any event, the collision just after her touch sent her sprawling to the field.

So, she didn’t know she’d broken a scoreless tie in the ninth minute of the second half. She’d know pretty soon, though.

“I got the through-ball from Caroline (Taylor), and I saw the goalie coming out,” Savaia said. “I went to go to the opposite post, and I don’t know what number the defender was, but she took me out. I thought I missed the goal. And then I got up, and Charley (Dusenbury) was yelling in my face.”

The excitement was real.

“It’s just amazing,” Savaia said. “Coming together to celebrate after we score is just the best feeling in the world.”

Savaia’s goal was the first shot to find the net Monday evening after an absolutely frantic first half that saw both teams miss a number of fantastic chances. Polk County (14-4-3) turned up the pressure immediately, with a point-blank chance turned away by the Gryphons’ keeper just a minute into the game. The chances were fast and furious after that. Another save just 30 seconds later. A shot that sailed wide six minutes in. A good cross that couldn’t be handled at the 16-minute mark. Polk County continued to hammer away, but nothing would go.

“I felt like we had the better of the first 15 minutes, and then they kind of settled in,” Polk County coach Lennox Charles said. “After that, I thought they had the better of the rest of the first half in terms of possession and moving the ball. I thought they controlled the rhythm of the game, probably for the last 20 or so minutes of the first half.

“But we hung in there. And I think, for the most part, we were a little more dangerous in the attacking third than they were.”

When the Gryphons (13-4) eventually turned the tide, the Wolverines were up to the task defensively. Cate Brown made a save at 21:13, another at 21:01, and punched a ball over the crossbar at 20:25. Meanwhile, her teammates were cutting off passing lanes and pressuring the ball, and generally making life miserable for Thomas Jefferson, as the Gryphons controlled the run of play late in the half but couldn’t get good shots.

Charles was quick to credit his defense, particularly Jasmine Baird and Natalie Serrano, for their strong play.

“A lot of that goes to Jasmine and Natalie,” he said. “They both did a heck of a job on their best player, keeping her contained enough that you could tell she was frustrated. They both did such a good job of slowing her down. They got down in our attacking third a lot, but I don’t feel like they created as many good chances as we did. The entire defense did an unbelievable job.”

The second half started much the same as the first for Polk County. There was a chance just a minute in and two more in the next six minutes before Savaia was able to score.

Polk County kept pressing, with three more good chances before the 59th minute, when Savaia briefly went out after a yellow card. With 14:48 to play, the Wolverines doubled the advantage. Taylor hit a pretty cross that nobody could convert, but in the fight for the loose ball, Kylie Lewis found her footing and blasted home a goal for the final 2-0 advantage.

“We talk to Kylie about just thinking basketball,” Charles said of Lewis, a power forward for the Wolverines on the hardwood. “She does a good job of using her body to create space. When she turns somebody, it’s tough to get around her. And she used her athleticism to turn around quickly and get her foot back on that ball even though there were a couple of white shirts right there.

“She’s scored two goals now in the playoffs, and her confidence level is up and she’s feeling more comfortable doing everything we ask her to do.”

Now, the Wolverines will host Uwharrie Charter (16-5) in the fourth round. Polk County last appeared this deep in the playoffs in 2019, though they had a first-round bye that season and only needed two wins to get there. The last time the Wolverines won three playoff games, they won them all. That was the 1A state title season of 2009.

“Coming into the season, we just weren’t sure,” Charles said. “But these girls have put so much work in. And when you get to this point in the season, you feel ike you’ve accomplished something. Now, you can see down the road. You can’t look past the next round, because the next team is going to be even better. But to be where we are at this point with the way the season started is a tribute to the girls stepping up and playing together and playing hard.”

Savaia is excited to have another chance at a home game, particularly if it’s like Monday night. A community benefactor provided tickets for any Polk County fan who wanted to attend, and 351 took advantage of the offer.

“I hope we see as many people out here as we saw tonight,” she said. “It felt like a football game or something.”