Photo by Staff Photo: Jason Braverman
HOSCHTON -- Her right shoulder cinched tightly in a brace, Danielle Au made her much anticipated return to the soccer field Tuesday night.
It took her six minutes and eight seconds to make an impact.
The senior ripped a free kick goal from 30 yards out to start a first-half onslaught for the sixth-ranked North Gwinnett girls as they defeated previously unbeaten Mill Creek, ranked fourth in Class AAAAA, 3-0 in an important Region 7-AAAAA game.
Au's first contact since shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum didn't cause any problems, though she was admittedly sore and ready to ice afterward.
"I haven't played for eight weeks, so my touch is a little off," the South Carolina signee said.
Despite that, Au played a role in all three first-half goals. She scored once, assisted a goal and drew the foul that set up another score, in addition to giving the Bulldogs (5-1) an emotional boost.
It helped North solve a Mill Creek (6-1) defense that had allowed just one goal all season.
"For her first game back, she exceeded my expectations," North girls coach Mark Karen said. "She looked like Danielle in her old form."
Au's early goal was a major lift and 10 minutes later her foul set up another tally off a set piece. Mackenzie Loula took the free kick, lofting a ball into the box that teammate Lauren Harriman headed to Taylor Burns, who scored on a header.
Burns, just a freshman, has been the main offensive cog in Au's absence. She continued that just before halftime when she scored her team-best eighth goal off a cross from Au, who got knocked to the ground and hopped back up for the assist.
That goal was the last North got past Mill Creek goalkeeper Tessa Lukens, who made 13 saves on the Bulldogs' 16 shots on goal. Her offense didn't help much as North controlled play, limiting the Hawks to just two shots on goal -- both were saved easily by goalie Lauren Duncan.
Abby Grest, Loula, Abigail Groth, Kristin Tamburo and Jessica Eberhardt did solid defensive work to post the Bulldogs' fifth shutout in six games.
"Our defensive line played very well, winning balls in the air and keeping the ball moving," Karen said.
The coach said his players also had a little extra pep because of Au's return, but they still played good team ball instead of relying so heavily on their team captain, who also is the only senior on a young North roster.
Au was pleased, too, mostly with how the Bulldogs played as a team.
"We did good today," Au said. "We beat a team that's ranked sixth in the state and not just by one goal, we beat them by three goals. So that's pretty good."