Staff Photo: Jason Braverman
Mill Creek's Lindsay Kempf (13) and Cortney Emmert (3), along with North Gwinnett's Abbi Edwards (3), all go up for a header during the second half of Tuesday's Class AAAAA semifinal playoff game.
Some of the most sound defensive teams in Class AAAAA girls soccer have been from Parkview. But even the Panthers' best year, when it allowed seven goals in 2008, falls short of what Harrison has going right now.
The top-ranked Hoyas have given up just five goals all season. Consider that three of those goals against came in the season's first two games, and they've surrendered two goals in the last 20 games.
That stout defense is what awaits defending state champion North Gwinnett when it plays at unbeaten Harrison tonight in the AAAAA finals.
"It's quite incredible," North girls coach Mark Karen said. "In the AAAAA classification, to only give up five goals in 22 games, I've never heard of that. ... We just have to keep doing what we've been doing the past several games and have a high work rate."
The stingy defense is one of the reasons Harrison (20-0-2) has been considered a state-title favorite since the preseason. The Hoyas' veteran lineup features most of the same players who lost to Parkview in the 2009 championship game.
Meanwhile third-ranked North (19-3) has been more of a surprise finalist to most of the state, even though it currently holds the state title. Graduation took some key parts off last year's championship team, most notably high-scoring striker Danielle Au.
The Bulldogs heard rumblings all season that without Au, they weren't as formidable. Yet here they are in the AAAAA finals, as an underdog once again.
"Yeah, I think we are (the underdog)," Karen said. "Everybody tells us we are. But Harrison deserves to be No. 1. They're undefeated. ... We've kind of been told we're the underdog the whole year and we've done OK by it."
North takes an 11-game winning streak into today's final, playing its best soccer late in the season. Michelle DeMaris has solidified the goalkeeper spot -- her two penalty kick saves clinched a semifinal shootout win over Region 7-AAAAA rival Mill Creek -- and Abby Groth, Krissy Tamburo, Mackenzie Loula and Jessica Eberhardt head up a veteran defense.
Seniors Abbi Edwards and Maggie Grayson are key leaders in the midfield, while Taylor Burns, Caroline Gualdoni, Lauren Harriman and Brooke Bortles have played well in the attack. Burns scored both goals in the semifinal win.
"(Burns and Gualdoni) played together as a unit, it was their best game together (vs. Mill Creek)," Karen said.
Goals will be even more precious tonight for that group, especially against a Harrison team that has 18 shutouts.
It will be the final high school game for five North seniors who hope to finish up with a victory, and back-to-back state titles.
"We're looking forward to the game," Karen said. "I'm just very proud of this team. To be told you might not even be in the playoffs and to be here is a great accomplishment."