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Defense holds lead as Hawks reach first Elite Eight

Photo: David McGregor<br> Mill Creek's Torie Scalera (9) celebrates her goal as Alpharetta's Renee Nance (2) walks away during the first half of the Hawks' second-round playoff game Tuesday. The match was completed Wednesday and Scalera's goal stood up for the win.

Photo: David McGregor
Mill Creek's Torie Scalera (9) celebrates her goal as Alpharetta's Renee Nance (2) walks away during the first half of the Hawks' second-round playoff game Tuesday. The match was completed Wednesday and Scalera's goal stood up for the win.

HOSCHTON -- Mill Creek's girls soccer team held its slim, one-goal lead for more than 78 minutes in a first-round win over Lassiter.

That was nothing compared to the second round. The sixth-ranked Hawks guarded their narrow edge for roughly 25 hours.

Slightly before 8 p.m. Tuesday, Torie Scalera scored for an early lead that stood for almost 15 minutes until storms forced a postponement. The hosts played solid defense Wednesday when the game resumed, grinding out nearly 62 more minutes of scoreless soccer for a 1-0 win over No. 7 Alpharetta in the second round of the Class AAAAA playoffs.

"That's the first time we've held a one-goal lead that long," Mill Creek girls coach Brent Leitsch said. "We knew scoring goals against (Alpharetta) would not be easy. We knew it would be a tight game."

It was tight, but the Hawks (16-3) have figured out how to win them. Both playoff victories have been 1-0, reversing a couple of late-season, one-goal losses to Region 7-AAAAA rivals Collins Hill and North Gwinnett.

Wednesday's effort gave Mill Creek its first home playoff victory and just the second playoff win for a still-young program. Now it gets to host Hillgrove in Friday's quarterfinals.

Slipping to a No. 3 seed from the region wasn't an ideal finish to the regular season, not that it matters much now.

"We knew we were a good team," Leitsch said. "We play in a tough region so finishing third doesn't mean anything. ... The state champion doesn't always come from a No. 1 seed."

Mill Creek's defense keyed the second-round victory, pitching its second shutout of the playoffs. Goalkeeper Tessa Lukens made the only two saves that Alpharetta (13-6) put on frame, and her defenders kept everything else safely away.

Megan Gil, Jessica Hall, Nicole Ruggieri and Hannah Wilson were solid in the back, with Gil's slide tackle of an open shot in the box early in the second half being a huge stop.

"Our defense is incredible," Scalera said. "We have speed. We have aggressiveness. Our defense is hard to get by and if you get to our goalkeeper, she's the (7-AAAAA) goalkeeper of the year."

The Hawks had opportunities to make the game much less tense, but they didn't finish off those chances.

Lauren Tanner's cross to Cari Powell late in the first half was dangerous, but Powell's shot was high. Just before halftime, Lindsay Kempf hit the crossbar with a header off Tatum O'Keefe's corner kick. Alpharetta goalkeeper Jill Maloney also made a great kick save on a second-half shot by Powell to keep her team in it.

But in the end, the defense held and Mill Creek's midfield maintained enough possession to control play.

"Cortney Emmert (who assisted Scalera's game-winning goal Tuesday) and Lindsay Kempf at center mid played great," Leitsch said. "They challenged every ball. They were very active. They were winning those 50-50 balls."

The Hawks now get to keep playing, at home no less. Two straight home games for a No. 3 seed doesn't seem likely, but they aren't isn't complaining.

"This is our first time in the playoffs and we're in the third round," Scalera said. "It's pretty exciting."