COLLEGE PARK — The smile on Tyler Bennett’s face was brighter than her neon-orange jersey as she hugged several of her Chestatee teammates Friday evening.
For a moment, the score line didn’t matter. The senior was just happy to know she had beaten her own expectations to become the first Lady War Eagles’ goalkeeper to lead her team to a state quarterfinal appearance.
Bennett recorded 14 saves in Chestatee’s 2-0 loss to third-ranked Woodward Academy (13-1-2), which advanced to its second semifinal appearance in five years, and first since its return to Class AAAA.
“It’s kind of tough coming out here, when you know it could be your last game, and they score on you,” she said. “But our defense did so well, and kept a lot of shots from happening. I think it went the way I wanted it to go.”
As late as February, Bennett hadn’t even considered walking on to the team until her father Chuck asked if assistant coach Shelly Garner could give her a tryout. The senior started ever since the first few weeks of the season, and produced several excellent saves to keep Chestatee in contention with a fluid, effective Woodward team.
“She kept us in the ball game,” said Chestatee coach Mark Dunn, who is retiring after 34 seasons as a head coach. “She’s a heck of a player. You could tell, overall, that (Woodward) was more talented, had more speed, but the girls hung in tight. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Sophomore Courtney Baker struck first in the 12th minute of play before Morgan Brinson’s goal late in the second half sealed the deal for coach Tonia Webb’s Woodward side. Woodward Academy will take on unbeaten defending champion Marist (17-0) in the semifinals on May 12 in Atlanta.
Woodward quickly went to work pinning Chestatee back in its own half while allowing leading striker Brinson to take long shots while Baker (seven goals this season) and sophomore Kayla Bruster slipped through-balls into dangerous areas.
The pressure would soon lead to Chestatee miscues. Baker picked up a badly-played Chestatee pass through the middle of the defense, then slid a low, hard shot under Bennett as she was rushing out of her box to clear for a one-goal advantage.
Sophomore winger Izzy Romero nearly doubled the Woodward lead 10 minutes later when she burst into the Chestatee box, but sophomore Megan Dew was quick to snuff out the attack for the visitors.
As goal-scoring opportunities became scarce, Dunn moved Dew up from midfield into the final third to see if her pace could undo Woodward’s stout defenders.
“Usually, he wants me up there so I can be faster than the defense,” said Dew. “I think it could have worked out if we had gotten more balls through, but they were definitely faster, and it was hard to match my speed to them. It was very frustrating to me. Whenever you work hard and push yourself to the max, it’s hard to see that.”
Bennett was subjected to a barrage of Woodward shots after halftime, including one from Brinson within the first two minutes of the restart. Jordan Pruitt’s back-pass played in Brinson through the middle, but Bennett stayed on her toes to make a quick parry before midfielder Merrie Barnett scrambled the shot away.
“The more shots, the better,” said Bennett. “It keeps me focused, and makes me want them to shoot, so I can make more saves.”
Sophomore Nina Burgess enjoyed Chestatee’s best offensive chance of the game when she robbed the feet of Woodward’s Joy Howard in the 45th minute, but her opportunity was quickly cleared into the stands by Gabby Wilkinson as Burgess burst into the Woodward box. It took Chestatee nearly 79 minutes to create a shot on goal. Woodward finished the game with 16 shots on target.
“She’s really anchored our backline for years,” said Webb of Wilkinson, a junior. “She’s so good at communicating, and she doesn’t let things get by her.”
And with less than 13 minutes left to play, defense turned into attack as Woodward got yet another scoring chance.
Junior Alexi Hecht found Brinson on the left wing before Brinson cut inside to release a low, searing shot past Bennett’s left arm and give Woodward its 2-0 cushion.
Webb’s team could have easily ran away with the game, if not for Bennett’s quick reflexes. She pulled off an excellent double-save against sophomore forward Kia Jie Jacob with seven minutes left to play.
Dew said her goalkeeper was “absolutely amazing.”
“She just came from basketball season and thought she’d give it a try,” said Dew. “And now she’s become one of the best goalkeepers I’ve ever worked with. She tries so hard in every game. I’m really proud of her.”
After leading his Chestatee team to a program-first state quarterfinals appearance, Dunn said he’s looking forward to spending time with his family, but that he’ll always keep in touch with the team. It was hard to know when to step away, he said, but he thought the team had the talent and potential to be right back in the playoffs for next year.
“Last month, it was probably the best time for improving, and having fun in practice.” he said. “That’s the way you want to finish a season, to have a great run like this.”
Bennett said it’s the way she wanted to have gone out. There were no tears, no regrets from the walk-on who helped anchor her team through its most successful season. The volleyball, basketball and soccer veteran just smiled as she thought of the looming reality of graduation, which will end her time as a three-sport athlete for Chestatee.
“As soon as I came out here, I felt so supported,” she said. “I know I’m going to miss team sports. It’s pretty inspiring for me in the future.”