Photo: Craig Cappy<br> North Gwinnett's Lauren Harriman (6) scores the first of her three goals during the Bulldogs' win over Etowah in the first round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs on Tuesday as goalie Kaleigh Clarke can only watch.
SUWANEE -- Most coaches will tell you that the most difficult thing to do in soccer is score a goal. On Tuesday night, however, North Gwinnett's offense almost made it look easy.
On the strength of a hat trick from Lauren Harriman and a smothering defense, the defending Class AAAAA girls state champion took its first step towards a repeat with a 4-0 shutout over Etowah in the state tournament's opening round.
The score could have been even more lopsided as the fourth-ranked Bulldogs (16-3) launched 20 shots on goal, but several near misses and 13 saves from Etowah keeper Kaleigh Clark kept the North goal total much lower.
"In the first 20 minutes of the game, it was like old times with us," North head coach Mark Karen said. "We dominated with a lot of shots but we just couldn't get a goal. Once we got one, the floodgates opened up."
The opening of the gates began in the game's 10th minute when Harriman scored her first of the night. Caroline Gualdoni got the play started when she took a sharp shot from the left side, only to have it stopped by keeper Clark.
However, Clark couldn't contain the shot, and Harriman cleaned up the mess when she scooted in the loose ball.
"Harriman is a talented technical player and always shows up in big games," Karen said. "We needed for her to open up the gates for us tonight."
Just over 21 minutes later, Harriman struck again, only this time it was the assist end as she hit Taylor Burns in the middle of the box with a nice cross pass.
Burns took the ball, spun toward the right post and hooked it in the top left corner with a shot off her right foot. Barely two minutes later, Burns returned the favor when she hit Harriman with a long lead pass for her second goal of the night and a 3-0 lead at the half.
"Getting one goal would've been good but three was more than I could've asked for," Harriman said after notching her first hat trick of the season. "It's awesome because every team in the playoffs is going to be good and give us their best."
Harriman topped off her three-goal night less than five minutes into the second half when Gualdoni, who recorded two assists, struck a pass from the left side of the box in front of the Etowah goal.
Harriman didn't even let the ball hit the ground as she stuck out her left foot and redirected the ball into the back of the net from point blank range.
As well as North played on offense, the defense made sure those goals stood as Etowah (9-8) got just three shots on goal. The Eagles' best look came eight minutes into the second half when Caroline Waters broke away towards the box, pulling out North's keeper Michelle DeMaris.
Waters was able to get the ball past DeMaris but couldn't catch up to it as the shot she nudged missed the post and rolled into the outside of the net.
"We knew Waters and Jaclyn Miller were their big threats on offense our plan was to shut them down," Karen said. "Kristin Tamburo, Mackenzie Loula and Abigail Groth all did a great job in the back of doing that."
North advanced to next Tuesday's second round, where it will play tonight's Dacula-Milton winner.