Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. North Gwinnett's Abbi Edwards (3) gets mobbed by her teammates after scoring the final goal in penalty kicks to beat Mill Creek on Tuesday night.
SUWANEE -- When North Gwinnett's girls soccer team won the Class AAAAA state championship last spring, Michelle DeMaris was a spectator who hadn't played soccer since seventh grade.
On Tuesday night, she was the Bulldogs' hero.
The senior, a full-time volleyball player talked into joining the soccer team in the offseason, made two diving saves in the penalty kick round as third-ranked North Gwinnett beat No. 4 Mill Creek 3-2 (4-2 on PKs) in a rematch of Region 7-AAAAA rivals in the Class AAAAA semifinals.
North advances to play at Harrison in Friday night's state championship game.
"It definitely feels great to help them," said DeMaris, whose soccer experience as a youth didn't even include much time at goalie. "I didn't think I'd have this key of a role but it's been awesome."
North had a chance to win in overtime, but missed a penalty kick of its own in the first extra period. That sent the match into overtime with DeMaris, a novice in the net with just this season of experience, facing Mill Creek's Tessa Lukens, the 7-AAAAA goalkeeper of the year.
Lukens stuffed North's third PK with a dive to her left, but DeMaris stopped the Hawks' second and third kicks, one to her right and the other to her left. Only Lindsay Kempf and Lauren Tanner converted PKs for Mill Creek.
Meanwhile, Abby Groth, Lauren Harriman, Maggie Grayson and Abbi Edwards made their PKs for North. With DeMaris' two stops behind her, Edwards' fifth PK was the clincher and Mill Creek didn't need a fifth shot.
DeMaris only gave soccer a shot this spring because she didn't want to do track again, so she spent the winter working two to three times a week with North goalkeeper coach Mike Wentzler to get ready for a moment like this.
"You've got a senior who could have easily taken her senior spring semester off and relaxed, got ready for college," North girls coach Mark Karen said. "For a senior who's never played to come out and do that, it symbolizes what this team's about. We have a real team out there."
North (19-3) led twice in the game thanks to two first-half goals from Taylor Burns, who also drew the overtime PK that the Bulldogs missed. But each time the hosts went ahead a goal, Mill Creek (17-4) kept fighting back.
The Hawks rallied late in their quarterfinal win and they did it again Tuesday to force overtime. But they couldn't quite finish off the comeback this time, ending the best soccer season in school history.
"We battled back twice from one goal down to tie it and that says a lot about the character of the girls," Mill Creek girls coach Brent Leitsch said. "In four years, we went from four wins to the Final Four."
North couldn't have scripted a better start, scoring just 56 seconds into the match off a sequence that began with defender Groth sending a strong header back into the offensive zone. It went directly to Caroline Gualdoni, who flicked a header to Burns in the penalty area. Burns placed a shot in the upper corner of the goal for a 1-0 edge.
The Bulldogs kept the heat on, putting three shots on goal in the game's first four minutes.
Mill Creek eventually settled down in the opening half, getting an equalizer in the 26th minute. Cari Powell got free behind the North defense and scored the Hawks' goal with a low, hard shot. It was her team's only shot on goal of the first half.
Burns' second goal came just 1:47 before halftime, turning the momentum thanks to a long free kick by Mackenzie Loula. Loula's kick took a high bounce and Burns ran into the open space before sending a header into the net.
North had two good chances to extend its lead early in the second half but Lukens made a nice leaping save of a long free kick by Krissy Tamburo and two minutes later Lauren Harriman hit the crossbar.
Mill Creek evened the match 2-2 in the 63rd minute when Kempf was taken down in the penalty box and awarded a foul. She also converted the ensuing penalty kick, which was the Hawks' second shot on goal of the game.
North had an 8-2 edge in shots on goal in regulation.
The Bulldogs also had the best looks at goal in overtime and their most serious threat was the PK, which sailed over the goal. They were much more accurate after OT, hitting 4 of 5 PKs to make sure DeMaris was the hero.
Now North is a win away from its second straight AAAAA championship.
"It's better than last year but in a different way," Karen said of returning to the AAAAA final. "You can't beat the first time, but to get back with this group and all the things going on is special. We were 1-1 in the region four weeks ago. ... We've got some unfinished business. We're not just happy to be there (in the finals). And I'm just very proud of these girls for getting back."