In a rivalry game with so much at stake for the Menlo School girls soccer team, the closing moments of Tuesday's match against Sacred Heart Prep turned into a stressful affair.
"I've never been more worried for 20 minutes of my life," Menlo senior forward Chandler Wickers said with a laugh.
Menlo survived six potential game-tying shots by Sacred Heart Prep in the last 10 minutes of play to pull out a crucial 2-1 victory over its West Bay Athletic League (Foothill Division) rival.
"It was a great game; it could have gone either way," Menlo head coach Donoson FitzGerald said. "I thought our kids came out from the beginning with a real sense of purpose and desire. (Sacred Heart) Prep played really well and I feel great that we got the win."
With the victory, Menlo (7-0-1, 11-3-2 overall) moves into sole possession of first place in the WBAL, and puts the Knights squarely in the driver's seat to win the division title with just four league games left on their schedule.
Sacred Heart Prep (5-1-1, 11-2-2 overall) now sits in second place, six points behind Menlo in the WBAL standings with five to play.
The Knights and the Gators had tied, 1-1, in their first meeting three weeks earlier at Sacred Heart Prep, and both teams knew that Thursday's matchup would probably be another tight contest.
"I think having the second game at home really helped," Wickers said. "This was a game we've been looking forward to all season. We were definitely going to try our hardest to win."
Menlo started the contest with an energetic defensive effort that allowed the Knights to dominate the time of possession early in the game. Menlo junior defenders Lizzie Lacy and Tess Batchelder consistently turned away any Gator attacks that crossed the center line, while midfielder Amanda McFarland did a nice job shadowing one of the Gators' senior captains, Alex Bourdillon, all around the field.
"They are the best," Menlo goalie Schuyler Tilney-Volk said of the Knights' defensive unit. "They stopped a good two thirds of the shots. Honestly we could not have won this game without them. They are the best defense I could ever hope for."
Sacred Heart Prep's own defensive line was depleted early on, as freshman defender Cameron Gordon suffered a leg injury eight minutes into the game and did not return.
Shortly after Gordon's injury, Wickers provided the first goal of the game for the Knights.
Sacred Heart Prep was called for a hand ball near its own goal, giving the Knights a free kick just outside the box. McFarland took the direct kick for Menlo, but elected not to shoot, instead passing to Wickers in front of the net for a goal that surprised even her head coach.
"I thought Amanda was going to shoot," FitzGerald said. "Chandler said 'I gave her the little look' to slide it across. So I wasn't expecting that and thought it was a great little play."
At the start of the second half, Sacred Heart Prep had an excellent opportunity to score, as Gators' sophomore Riley Shanahan shot a beautiful ball toward the goal from the far right side of the field. However, Tilney-Volk made an even better play, tipping the ball to herself for a save that preserved the Menlo lead.
"She's very very good. Today she was excellent," FitzGerald said of his sophomore keeper. "A big part of the victory today the way she played."
With 26 minutes left in the game, Wickers helped put Menlo on the scoreboard again. The senior passed to sophomore Zoe Enright in front of the net, and Enright's first goal of the season gave the Knights a 2-0 lead.
"Our second goal was huge. At halftime, I really felt we were going to need a second goal to win," FitzGerald said.
Up two goals, the Knights looked well on their way to an easy victory, but Sacred Heart Prep had other ideas.
The Gators relentlessly attacked the goal, finally scoring with 12 minutes remaining in the game. Bourdillon scored the goal off a perfectly placed cross from sophomore Tierna Davidson.
In the closing minutes of the game, Sacred Heart Prep continued to test Tilney-Volk with several shots on goal, but was unable to get any to go through.
"I was hoping for some good fortune," FitzGerald said of the end of the game. "I was trying to get a couple more kids to play in the back and to clear the ball more safely because the tide was turning and we were holding on a little bit."
The game ended on a corner kick from Gators' freshman Olivia Athens, who hit the side of the net out of bounds as time expired.
"We fought back, we didn't give up," Sacred Heart head coach Ramiro Arrendondo said. "That's something our team has shown character in throughout the whole season. They wanted it, and Menlo obviously wanted it, as well."
After the game when asked about the possible CCS seeding implications from Menlo's victory, FitzGerald insisted that his team's sole focus moving forward is to secure a WBAL title.
"We realize if we win the league, we'll get a really good seed (in CCS)," FitzGerald said. "Right now I just want to win league, and today's win was a huge step in doing that."
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