SUWANEE As time wound down in Milton's scoreless soccer match at North Gwinnett in Wednesday's first round of the Class AAAAA girls playoffs, everyone sensed it would come down to a single shot.
As she has many times this season, Danielle Au made that fateful shot in the 62nd minute to lift the Bulldogs to a 1-0 victory and into Wednesday's second round at home against Grayson, a 2-0 winner over Harrison.
Au, a South Carolina signee, blooped a shot over the Milton keeper's head from about 16 yards out for her team-high 16th goal this season. In that instant, avenged was Milton's 3-0 victory over North in both teams' regular season finale on the same field a week earlier.
In that preceding match, the Eagles broke open a scoreless tie in the second half. This time, however, with survival in the playoffs at stake, North got the job done.
Wednesday's win boosted the Region 7-AAAAA champion Bulldogs three matches shy of a semifinal they last reached in 1999 and 2000 and two shy of their quarterfinal appearance last year against Greenbrier.
The Bulldogs' 11th shutout this season also vanquished distant memory of Milton's 2-1 victory that ruined North's playoff run in the second round in 2005, when coincidentally Au's older sister, Samantha, had the Bulldogs' only goal. Key this time, though, was what Bulldogs coach Mark Karen calls North's "no-name" defense, which allowed only four goals in this year's 9-0 region run and accounted for strings of four and five shutouts in the team's 10-0 midseason streak.
"We're good at preparing for opponents and take pride in that," Karen said. "Our defense has really been a big factor."
The Bulldogs (15-3) had chances in the first 40-minute half, but couldn't cash in. In just the game's second minute, Sarah Murphy drove down the left side, but her centering pass was barely tipped away by Milton's keeper. Au's free kick from 25 yards in the 25th minute hit the crossbar, as did Abbi Edwards' shot from 15 yards less than a minute later.
Region 6-AAAAA's fourth-seeded Milton (12-6) didn't manage a shot until 15 minutes in, but was serious when it finally did. Nora Elshami launched a blistering ball directly on from 13 yards, but Bulldogs keeper Lauren Duncan stopped it squarely. The Eagles pressed throughout, but the Bulldogs denied them a sixth straight victory.
Karen, a 10th-year coach in the playoffs for an eighth consecutive time, said the key to winning in the playoffs is overlooking no one, especially not a fourth seed in the first round.
"Against teams in our metro area, you can't have a letdown in any game," he said.