Flowery Branch senior Kelsey Mathis clung to a small shred of hope she would get to the ball.
As the Lady Falcons soccer team had the one-point lead during the sudden death portion of a penalty shootout in Friday’s Class 5A state quarterfinal match, the interlocked line of Mathis’ teammates from midfield watched the events unravel — the kick, Mathis’ split-second reaction, her dive left and the eruption of cheers soon after.
The second of two penalty stops by Mathis, who saved the first and last attempts, erased Starr’s Mill’s last chance for redemption and preserved a 1-1, 6-5 victory in penalty kicks that sent the Lady Falcons to their first-ever state semifinal.
Mathis’ save in the tense shootout was all thanks to the early teachings instilled in her playing career.
“I had a coach a long time ago who told me to look at (a player’s) stomach, and look where she’s setting up to kick the ball,” Mathis said. “So the side they go to set up on is the side that helps determine where they’re going to kick to, and they go the opposite way most of the time. If not, you’re a step closer. ...That really helped me on that last save.”
When senior Morgan Wadsworth netted the equalizer for Flowery Branch in the 58th minute of regulation, there was little doubt in the mind of coach Katie Scali the match would be headed for extra time. She just didn’t know how much.
Sure enough, this deadlocked contest between state-ranked opponents carried through the two five-minute periods of overtime and well into the penalty portion. Flowery Branch took an early 3-1 advantage behind spot kicks from Wysocki, Glorismel Chavez and Wadsworth in the best-of-five shootout before Starr’s Mill worked its way back to 5-5.
Then Sophomore Callie Huff buried the seventh penalty kick for the Lady Falcons, setting up the final staredown between Mathis and Star’s Mill defender Sky Dedrick.
The outcome was all so telling for Scali’s eight rostered seniors.
“I am just proud for them. I don’t think even they expected to get this far, so we’ve just said all year if we worked together, we can accomplish anything,” Scali said. “I think it was appropriate we had to go into some extra kickers and get a little more people involved in the action.
“I’m just so proud of senior Kelsey Mathis, coming up big to make those two saves. Just an amazing night or those seniors, so proud of them.”
Flowery Branch (13-6) moves on to play fellow two-seed McIntosh, which defeated Grady on Friday. The Lady Falcons won the coin flip and will host the state semifinal match Tuesday at a time to be determined.
It was a chippy contest which had Flowery Branch on the receiving end of two yellow cards. Both teams were also at the mercy of a slick pitch, though Starr’s Mill passed with great purpose in the first half, especially in the direction of sophomore striker Meritt Parker, who exhibited a knack for tracking down balls in space. And in the 12th minute of play, the Panthers’ tactics finally paid off for the one-goal advantage.
Midfielder Makira Walton set up the scoring play, punching a knee-high through ball that skidded past a Flowery Branch defender down the left flank. Parker took care of the rest on the dribble, first taking a hard left cut with her right foot before slotting the left-footed strike past Mathis.
The play occurred just minutes before a hard collision at midfield sidelined Walton for the remainder of the half.
Meanwhile, Flowery Branch’s Caroline Wysocki, who notched four goals through the first two rounds, was constantly swarmed by the Panthers’ back line and denied any open looks on goal.
“We knew they would work the ball around well,” Scali said of Starr’s Mill. “We knew they had the defender that was very good in the air, which I think she probably headed out 9,000 balls. I told Caroline, ‘You’re probably going to get marked today, so we’re gonna keep moving you around and see if we can get anything opened up.'
“To her credit, she didn’t get too flustered. Just kept plugging away and helped create some opportunities for us.”
Flowery Branch’s best opportunity to answer back in the half came in the 24th minute. Senior Allyson Lusco nearly scored the equalizer after a cross by Wysocki was deflected off a defender 10 yards outside the goal. But Lusco’s attempt sailed a foot over the crossbar.
At intermission, Scali told her players to keep playing light and with a little more energy against a sixth-ranked Starr’s Mill program full of storied success. It showed in the second half.
As the pressure mounted, the crowd's reactions came in short bursts with every close call.
Wadsworth's clutch antics brought the Flowery Branch faithful in an uproar while chanting the ever-popular “Ole, Ole, Ole” in the 58th minute.
The senior launched an off-balanced, left-footed chip from 25 yards outside goal. As the ball curved into the upper-left corner of the net to knot the match at 1-1, Wadsworth fell backward as she flung her arms in celebration.
“I had it, cut back, and as soon as it left my foot I knew it was going in the upper-90, and I dropped to the ground,” Wadsworth said of the moment. ”It was the biggest relief of my life.”
Starr's Mill nearly jumped back ahead on a pair of breakaway chances in the final 12 minutes of regulation. Senior Sarah Biddle won a foot race down the sideline and floated a cross right in front of goal, but Starr's Miill couldn't get out of its own way as the ball rolled past two Panthers players on the pursuit.
And in the 76th minute, Flowery Branch's last-ditch effort to jump ahead in regulation came up short as Huff came out of nowhere down the Falcons sideline to cut off a ball. Her shot steered into the arms of the Starr's Mill's goalkeeper, who for a moment lost a handle before cradling it back in.
Wadsworth said the Lady Falcons made it a point to go as far as they could and use the word “united” as a means to fuel the journey. Time will only tell how far that will take them.
As for Scali, she said the team will enjoy this win before hitting the film room.
“I would think McIntosh would probably pull out the win. But I’m sure a lot of people thought Starr’s Mill would probably pull out the win today,” Scali said with a smile.