BUFORD -- The up-and-coming Buford girls soccer program made a great run this season, but it ended Tuesday night against a more established power.
Visiting St. Pius, ranked third in Class AAA, outlasted previously unbeaten and second-ranked Buford 7-3 in a Final Four slugfest that saw both teams give up season highs for goals allowed.
Buford's attack struck first and put pressure on the Golden Lions' backline, which had given up just three goals in their last 11 matches. But St. Pius, winner of three state titles in the past four seasons, answered by putting away nearly every chance in the seven-goal effort.
Three of the goals came in the last 10 minutes against a Buford defense that had given up just four goals all season, including just one in the last 12 matches.
"I felt like we were going to score," said St. Pius girls coach Sara Geiger, the Daily Post's 2003 girls soccer player of the year when she was a senior at Parkview. "That was the plan, keep scoring, keep scoring, keep scoring. It felt like the whole time I couldn't relax. There was no relaxing, both ways."
Buford (19-1) began the game with great momentum when Ceely Coker scored off a scramble in front of the St. Pius (18-1-3) net midway through the first half. It was her 25th goal of the season.
Unfortunately for the hosts, the Golden Lions answered just 1 minute, 29 seconds later when Tiffany Rodriguez followed up her own shot for the equalizer. St. Pius went up 2-1, a lead it carried into halftime, almost 10 minutes later when Duluth resident Melissa Pagoaga finished off a free kick that was initially saved by Buford goalkeeper Lane Crawford.
In the 47th minute, St. Pius' Amanda Vocelka got free down the middle and scored for a two-goal lead that grew to 4-1 when Vocelka converted a penalty kick after a Buford foul in the box.
Despite the deficit, the Wolves didn't quit.
Ambria Shutts blasted a lefty strike from 30 yards out in the 53rd minute that closed the margin, then Elexa Bahr scored in the 61st minute, capitalizing on a nice pass from teammate Brie Smith. Smith slipped a pass behind the St. Pius defense and Bahr, who now has 25 goals, took advantage of the breakaway, dribbling it around goalkeeper Hannah Smith and cutting the lead to 4-3 when she finished into the open net.
"I definitely think they had some target forwards they look for," Geiger said of Buford. "We haven't been able to have that kind of pressure on our backs in some of our last games. When they have someone like that, they're going to keep kicking, kicking and kicking, and we've got to make some adjustments. We were able to outscore them I guess. We can't let them get the ball to (the forwards). I felt like that was the issue. And not to discredit Buford, they finished off their chances."
The next three quality scoring changes were for St. Pius, but two of the shots went just high and a third was stopped nicely by Crawford.
Only 39 seconds after Crawford's save, the Golden Lions pushed the lead back to 5-3 in the 70th minute. From the right side, Vocelka crossed to the far post to Kaitlyn Orman, who tapped a pass in front to Kirby Retherford, who punched a shot past Crawford.
Orman scored off a free kick just outside the box in the 76th minute and Lauren McKeever, a Lilburn resident, added the seventh goal in the 79th minute after a corner kick.
St. Pius advances to Friday's AAA title game against the Blessed Trinity-Woodward Academy winner, while a young Buford team looks forward to a bright future.
"They've got a lot of young players, so they'll return everybody," Geiger said of Buford. "They played hard. They're going to be a program that's going to continue to grow and grow."