For the second-consecutive season, a Georgia high school soccer giant thwarted Flowery Branch of a first-ever state championship berth.
Only this time, the Lady Falcons made two-time defending Class 5A champion McIntosh earn every ounce of this one.
Trailing just before intermission and for much of the second half, the Lady Falcons were able to force extra time behind Larysn Reid’s equalizing goal in the closing minutes of regulation, thus pushing the Lady Chiefs to two overtime periods before ultimately falling short in a 3-2 loss Tuesday, May 8, in Peachtree City.
As intermittent rain showers soaked the artificial turf pitch at McIntosh High, junior forward Tariah Miller scored off an off-balanced strike — her second of the match — deep inside the penalty box with 2:24 left in
double overtime, propelling the top-ranked Lady Chiefs (19-1-2) into the Class 5A final for the third-straight season.
McIntosh will go for their 12th state title overall — and sixth in the last eight seasons — when it faces No. 3 Whitewater at 5 p.m. on Friday at Mercer University in Macon. The fifth-ranked Wildcats — winners of 12 straight — are in their first title game since finishing as runners-up in 2013.
As for Flowery Branch (21-1), its quest for perfection ends with a second-consecutive defeat on the state semifinal stage. First-year Lady Falcons coach Anel Lilic still saw a squad continue to perform what they preached all season long.
“We were definitely toe-to-toe with back-to-back state champions. …It was tremendous,” said Lilic. “They played the whole 90 minutes, they never gave up, even when we were down. The game kind of settled down, and we were able to play better — maybe even have better spells than McIntosh. They are a very dangerous team.”
Caroline Wysocki’s initial go-ahead score in the first half (25th minute) coupled with Reid’s heroic touch in crunch time were the first goals yielded by McIntosh all postseason, and the most given up in a single game since a March 24 loss to Westminster.
“When coaches say they don’t play well and don’t credit the other team for that, that’s wrong, said McIntosh coach Marsha Clark, who was in no way surprised by the way things unfolded Tuesday. “Flowery Branch was able to take us off of our game, and we never quite settled in. We had some good moments, and Flowery Branch had some brilliant moments.
(My girls) were able to dig deep within themselves to pull it out.”
A rematch of last year’s Class 5A semifinal started out almost like a human pinball game, as both squads traded looping balls from their back lines and cut off the pursuits of each attacking front.
The reigning Class 5A champion Lady Chiefs, beside a shifty attacking third, were the first to feel their way through the Lady Falcons back line, though only for an instant, as Flowery Branch goalkeeper Hannah Pimentel cut off a beautifully threaded through ball for McIntosh scoring threat Tariah Miller in front of goal inside 30 minutes in the first half.
Things really picked up midway through the first half as attacker Wysocki landed the first blow for Flowery Branch with 15 minutes, 39 seconds before intermission. Wysocki, as if she rehearsed her called shot from way outside the box, wrangled in a ball, swiveled to her right and took two soft touches before launching a right-footed chip shot 30 yards over backup goalkeeper Stephanie Yi for the 1-0 lead
Seemingly unwavered by the Lady Falcons’ crowd-erupting strike, McIntosh responded within minutes. Junior striker Tariah Miller exposed a miscue along Flowery Branch’s back line to net the equalizer, collecting a loose ball just outside the 6-yard box and using her left foot to punch in a short-range shot in the right pocket.
And with 2:55 left, Lady Chiefs forward Macy Simon intercepted Pimentel’s short goal kick, took a few light touches and launched a strike in the upper 90 for a 2-1 Lady Chiefs’ advantage. It came seconds after Miller nearly put the Chiefs ahead with another quick shot of her own that sailed well over the crossbar.
Lilic kept stressing to his players to keep pushing.
“We told them at halftime, that if they kept working it would create chances to get back into this game,” he said.
The Lady Falcons came out firing. Three near misses came off the boot of Wysocki, her first as early as the 45th minute with an open shot floating over the iron. Her second came off a mini breakaway inside 18 minutes left, chasing down a beautifully placed ball in space, bypassing a defender and drawing the keeper to her right. But her diagonal shot rolled and curled a foot wide of the left post. And inside 17 minutes, Wysocki squeezed through a pair of defenders in front of goal and punched a shot that went wide right.
With elimination breathing down the necks of the Lady Falcons, Reid bought some more time for her teammates.
The freshmen attacker met a pass from classmate Anna Grady and slotted her shot inside the left post for the game’s second equalizer with 4:17 left on the clock.
“We created more opportunities than they did — maybe it was because they were protecting a lead,” Lilic added. “But (McIntosh) is a really, great team.”
Despite the loss, Flowery Branch continues to reveal itself as one of the fiercest soccer entities in the state, maintaining a top-three ranking in the Class 5A on to the way to a Region 8-5A title and a return to the state semifinal game in 2018. It was all done in the company of five seniors (Megan Shadbolt, Alexis Kent, Elise Lewis, Katharine Lonczak and Izzy Salgado) alongside a slew of dynamic underclassmen, which shattered its previous unbeaten streak set in 2012, when former coach Katie Scali’s program rattled off 14-straight wins during a 17-2 campaign.
It has Lilic foreseeing a promising future ahead.
“There’s nothing to be said to them to feel any better in this moment, but, I made sure to tell them that we will be back and we will be better. ...We will,” Lilic said.
“Only losing a few players, with what we established this year, the returners are going to be even better and they will continue to set the expectations higher. The talent pool in Hall County is pretty big. I think we will continue to grow.”