The Grayson bench sits in disappointment after being defeated by Harrison 2-1 during Saturday’s Class AAAAAA Girls Soccer Final at Kennesaw State. (Photo: Kyle Hess)
KENNESAW — With the two top-ranked teams in the state meeting in the Class AAAAAA girls soccer finals between Grayson and Harrison, it was no surprise that very little separated them.
In this case, it was an 8 1/2-minute span early in the second half that helped the second-ranked Hoyas overcome a halftime deficit and vault past the top-ranked Rams 2-1 to take the championship Saturday at 5/3 Bank Stadium on the campus of Kennesaw State University.
The goals by Audrey Tanner and Treva Aycock in the game’s 43rd and 52nd minutes were enough to help Harrison (22-0) come from behind and send Grayson (21-1-1) to its first loss of the season.
“We had about an eight-minute span where we got ourselves in a hole,” Grayson coach Terry Klinect said. “The No. 1 and 2 teams in the state, top-five in the nation. Unfortunately, somebody’s got to take their first loss of the season. Both are really good teams. It was a dogfight.”
Indeed, the Rams took the fight to the Hoyas in the first half, and put them in a position they hadn’t been in the entire season late in the first half.
Brittney Bennett sent a free kick into the penalty area that was cleared out by the Harrison defense.
But Jennifer Westendorf picked off the loose ball before dribbling in to about 25 yards out and firing a low liner that skipped past a diving Kelsey Daugherty and inside the back post to give Grayson a 1-0 lead with 7:13 left in the half.
It was the first time the Hoyas had trailed in a game this season, and coach Steve Riccard was curious how his team would react.
He got a quick answer.
“I told the girls that’s a possibility,” Riccard said of his pregame message to his team that it might face a deficit in Saturday’s game. “When you haven’t done it, it might’ve been a shock to them. And I said (playing with the lead) is going to come to an end some time. They did exactly what we practiced. The goal goes in, you run down, you dig (the ball) out of the net, … sprint it out (to midfield) and put it down. That’s what we wanted, a positive attitude.”
That attitude only got more positive after the two teams came out of intermission with the Rams still leading 1-0.
Carly Rich headed a right-wing cross ahead into the box, where Tanner was there to finish the play and pull Harrison even at 1-1 with 37:29 remaining.
It was a similar play that gave the Hoyas the lead just 8:30 later.
This time it was Rich sending the cross into the box from the right wing, which Aycock deflected past a diving Cadye Picklesimer to give Harrison a 2-1 lead with 28:59 left.
“We played real well the first 10 minutes of the game doing that,” Riccard said. “And then all of the sudden, (Grayson’s) physicality overwhelmed us, and we panicked for the rest of that first half. In the second half, that’s what we talked about. You’ve got to pass the ball, get the ball wide and curve balls into the box. … The second half was a complete different team from the first half.”
But Grayson also showed it wouldn’t go down without a fight, as Picklesimer made several of her 10 saves on the game to help keep the Rams in the game before they picked up the pace in the closing minutes.
The two best chances came in the final two minutes of the game.
First, Amanda Baker sent a cross from the left wing into the box that Ella Stevens forwarded toward the net and Daugherty stopped.
But the rebound popped right back to Stevens, who sent another, harder shot toward the net, only to be robbed by a diving Daugherty.
And an even bigger opportunity for the Rams came in the final minute, when Harrison was whistled for a foul 30 yards in front of its net with less than 20 seconds remaining.
Westendorf quickly wound up and fired a shot that a leaping Daugherty got a piece of, and the junior keeper managed to pounce on the rebounds before two charging Rams could get to it to preserve the victory, and the title.
“We had some opportunities at the end,” Klinect said. “(The players) never gave up. They kept coming. It’s just two tough teams.”
The bright side for Grayson is that with only four seniors and a young squad that includes a combined 12 freshmen and sophomores, much of this year’s squad will be back to challenge for a title again.
“We’re a young team,” Klinect said. “Last year, we were really, really young, and we’re growing. … We’re going to learn from this.
“It hurts. I’m sure anybody who’s (competed) hurts after (a loss). But this is probably the best bunch of girls I’ve coached.”