RADFORD – Twice on Friday, Tabitha McHale found herself one-on-one with Blacksburg’s goalkeeper.
Twice, she did something her team couldn’t do at this same stage – and against this same opponent – last year: hit the back of the net.
McHale’s pair of first half goals sapped the verve from the undefeated Bruins, as Woodgrove rolled to a 3-0 victory in the Group AA girls soccer semifinals at Radford University.
“Redemption,” said McHale, whose Wolverines lost a hard-fought, 1-0 game to the Bruins in last season’s semis. “We played them well last year, we just couldn’t put ‘em away. We worked on what we had to.”
A second-year program in Purcellville that has seniors on its roster for the first time, Woodgrove was crisp throughout in beating a Bruins team that set a school mark with 22 straight wins.
When Sarah Hardison banged home the third Woodgrove goal in the 51st minute, Blacksburg (22-1) knew its dream season was about to end.
“I think a bunch of us started giving up,” Blacksburg forward Adrian Newcomb said. “The other team was passing around us, making us run, so we got really tired. I think we saw that they were going to win.”
Newcomb, who finished her brilliant career with a school-record 61 goals, had Blacksburg’s best scoring chance in the 10th minute. A perfectly designed set piece got her open in front, but her shot sizzled harmlessly over the crossbar.
“I think I was just so nervous because I knew this would be, like, the one opportunity,” she said. “I think it just got to my head. I didn’t lean over it and it just went straight over the goal…So frustrating.”
McHale’s first goal came in the 8th minute, when she collected a long pass from Lexi Clarke and made a nice individual move to slip it past keeper Anika Marand.
She stared down Marand from even closer range in the 35th minute, taking a crossing feed from Victoria Perry and pounding it off the post and in.
“Both of those finishes were very skillful, and that’s the type of finishes we want,” Woodgrove coach Erin Barrett said. “When we played Grafton earlier this week [in a 3-1 victory], it seemed like every shot of hers went right to the keeper. I said, ‘We’re not really testing her. We need to get ‘em in the corners.’ And she did it. She’s a smart player. She’ll make adjustments as needed.”
Both times, the Bruins had communication breakdowns defensively that left Marand in a helpless position.
“When you play a good possession team like Woodgrove and they can connect on little give-and-gos, it makes it a little more complicated than just defending your one person,” said Blacksburg coach Travis Eschenmann, who lost a key defensive player to a torn ACL during the postseason. “When they’re passing the ball off, and you’ve got to step back and win a ball, and that communications not right on? A split-second and you’re beat.”
The Bruins won their first two regional games this year by scores of 9-0 and 10-0. This was a challenge unlike anything they’d seen. And while they kept the flow of play competitive in the first half, they weren’t equipped to come from behind.
“I think once they scored that one goal, we just kind of became more defensive,” said Blacksburg midfielder Lindsey Cusimano, a co-captain. “We were just trying to prevent another one from happening. So the midfield just kind of sat back with the defense and we couldn’t really work it up.”
The Wolverines (23-0-1), meanwhile, worked it up consistently – and put McHale in the kind of dream situations they couldn’t produce a year ago.
“I like those,” she said of the one-on-one opportunities. “They’re a little cheeky, so I like those.”
-Eschenmann said he thought his team played better today than it did in its victory over Woodgrove last year — a testament to how much the Wolverines have improved. “I was feeling really good, actually, about the way were playing. I thought we had an even part of the play and the girls were moving the ball effectively…I really liked the way we played. The score just didn’t end up on the right side for us.”
-The Bruins defense hesitated a bit on the first Woodgrove goal, thinking that the flag might go up. “One of us thought it was offsides, and I just got caught flat and she went past us,” defender Kat Everett said. “It was a direct play, and at that point, there was nothing we really could do.”
-While Blacksburg plays in a competitive district and tries to schedule tough nondistrict games, “I think what really hurt us was playing the region games that we did where we beat them 9-0, 10-0,” Cusimano said. “I don’t think we were used to this competitiveness of play.”
-Barrett credited defenders Katie Beebe and Lucy Etro in particular for stifling Blacksburg’s attack. “The girls did a good job of holding them, any type of transition they had, stepping in and breaking it up,” Barrett said.
-First goals are always big, but especially when a team was shut out in the last meeting of the series. “Oh my gosh. It felt so good,” McHale said. “Especially since it happened so quick. It let us relax some. Just put one away so we could focus on working it around rather than try to get it, try to get it.”
-Blacksburg played three freshman today, and Eschenmann is optimistic about the future of the program. “You’re disappointed in the loss,” he said. “But the exciting thing is that a lot of younger players saw minutes in a big-time game.”