Burns scores as North reaches Final Four

North Gwinnett's Abbi Edwards, left, goes after the ball as Chapel Hill defender Karen Smith defends Saturday at North Gwinnett.

North Gwinnett's Abbi Edwards, left, goes after the ball as Chapel Hill defender Karen Smith defends Saturday at North Gwinnett.

SUWANEE -- They do have names. Mackenzie Loula, Jessica Eberhardt, Abigail Groth and Kristin Tamburo for those who don't know.

Together they make up what North Gwinnett girls soccer coach Mark Karen calls his "no-name defense," dubbed that for the lack of recognition the group gets on a team whose headliner is its lone senior, high-scoring forward Danielle Au.

The defense did its typical work again Saturday afternoon, completely shutting down visiting Chapel Hill for a 1-0 victory in the Class AAAAA quarterfinals and sending the Bulldogs into a Wednesday semifinal at the Walton-Greenbrier winner. The effort made the game's only goal, a 54th-minute strike from Taylor Burns, hold up.

"I want (the defenders) to distribute the ball a little better, but they played well, it's hard to get behind them," Karen said. "They work hard at winning the ball and they're very good in the air, good at getting to the ball first. And good about not fouling when they get there."

Goalkeeper Lauren Duncan got the shutout, though she didn't need to work too hard for it. She cut off a cross and made one save on Chapel Hill's only shot on goal, a feeble attempt bumped by an attacker's body in the penalty box.

Outside of those few moments, possession stayed mostly in North's offensive half as Loula, Eberhardt, Tamburo and Groth quickly sent the ball back forward. Karen gave brief minutes to reserves Kate Boone, Abby Grest and Tasha Rodriguez and the unit didn't miss a beat.

It was the Bulldogs' 12th shutout of the season. They've allowed only 17 goals in 20 matches and just one in three state playoff games.

"We expect every offense to play like Danielle because we play against her every day in practice," Loula said of North's South Carolina-bound striker. "We try to play aggressive ... Our goal's always a shutout. Definitely."

While defense has been a strength for North (17-3), its weakness -- finishing on offense -- made the quarterfinal matchup closer than it could have been on the scoreboard. The Bulldogs had a 16-1 edge in shots on goal and a 4-0 advantage in corner kicks.

Several of those shots were close calls, including close first-half shots from Burns and Au that were saved and another blast by Burns in the 13th minute that hit the crossbar. The freshman also had two good shots in the first five minutes of the second half, one from the 8-yard line that was deflected by Chapel Hill goalie Jessica Spruill. It rolled in front of the goal line, but North didn't get there to finish it up.

Au, questionable up until game time with a calf injury she suffered in the last round, didn't score for the first time in the postseason. She did draw some heavy defensive attention, as Chapel Hill (12-6-1) and its South Carolina signee at sweeper, Kelsey Barr, tried to hold off North's charges.

Burns scored the game-winner with a phenomenal shot, beating a defender to the ball at the right corner of the box and then sending a high shot to the opposite upper 90. It left Spruill helpless, with its nearly unsavable placement.

"Taylor's our second-leading scorer, she's got 15 goals now," Karen said. "I talk to them about it, when you get a chance in the box, you take it. You can't place a shot any better than she did."

That goal was plenty for North's tough defense, which has the team in its first Final Four in Class AAAAA.

"I have had better individual players (on defense), but as a core unit, this is one of the best we've had," Karen said.