OAKWOOD - Already faced with playing a fellow top-10 team, Johnson High girls soccer coach Phil Higgins couldn't have asked for a worse start to his team's first-round Class AAA tournament game against Columbus.
With just four minutes off the game clock, Columbus senior Rachel LeRoy scored and set the tone for a highly contested 3-2 win over Johnson on Thursday at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium.
"That was good to see because she's a senior and one of our leaders," Columbus coach Rusty Oliver said. "It set the tone and allowed us to play our game, which is possession."
The eighth-ranked Lady Blue Devils (14-5) used crisp passes and timely runs to create several chances on goal throughout the game. While their ability to maintain possession ate up plenty of game clock, it also allowed the ninth-ranked Lady Knights (12-4) to counterattack.
That strategy led to Johnson's first goal, which Kayln Dumanowsky scored off a free kick from just outside the penalty box with 3:32 left in the half.
"We knew this was one of those games where you had to take care of opportunities," Higgins said.
Feeling the momentum shifting in the home team's favor, Columbus responded.
A Johnson foul near midfield set up a free kick by Becca Lee, who lofted a perfect pass toward the penalty box. As the ball entered, Madison See flicked the ball to Kyla Wright for an easy goal and a 2-1 lead heading into halftime.
Columbus scored its third goal 10 minutes into the half when Megan Byers' cross ended up in the side of the goal.
While it might have been a fluke goal, the fact Byers was able to get an open look didn't come as a surprise.
"We knew they would give us space; that's what the report said," Oliver said. "On this small field, I was glad they gave us some space."
Seeing their season on the brink, the Lady Knights cut the deficit to one on Dumanowsky's second goal of the game, which was almost identical to how Columbus scored its second goal. With 29:45 left to play, Bethany Johnson set up at midfield and sent a free kick into the box that Dumanowsky headed into the back of the net.
"She's very talented," Higgins said of the sophomore. "What you see on game day is what you see in practice. She goes hard all the time."
As do the rest of the Lady Knights, who had few solid scoring chances for the remainder of the game, especially with the way Columbus controlled the ball.
"We didn't expect to come in here an win without a fight," Oliver said. "We knew (Johnson would) come in and play hard."
The Lady Blue Devils are in for another battle in the next round when they face top-ranked St. Pius X.
"Our bracket is loaded," Higgins said. "It's the luck of the draw."
Despite the disappointing finish to the season, Higgins left the field encouraged about the future of girls soccer at Johnson.
"(The loss) wasn't because of a lack of heart," he said. "We're trying to measure improvement and last year we were the No. 3 seed and this year we were the No. 2 seed. Hopefully next year we'll be able to improve on that.
"We're a young program, but we have talented kids."