SHELBYVILLE — Erin Clark knew it. This was it, four years in the making, the Greenfield-Central girls soccer coach emphasized during the preseason and continued to believe throughout the past two months.
“I wish I would have written it down four years ago. I really do,” the fourth-year Cougars coach shared while addressing her team Saturday night. “After that first year, I wanted to quit coaching, but you made me come back because I knew this was going to happen. I knew you were going to start something big.”
The senior-led Cougars lived up to their coach’s prognostication this fall by claiming their first sectional title since 2012 and nearly pushing for more before losing to Class 2A Franklin Central (12-4-2) 1-0 in the Shelbyville Regional championship.
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Saturday’s loss halted their winning streak at five games — the Cougars’ longest run of wins this season — but it did nothing to dampen Clark’s pride in her players.
“Winning the sectional was our goal from the beginning. It’s up on our white board, 2016 sectional champs,” Clark said. “That was our goal, so all of these games since were like icing on the cake.
“As they have all year, the girls played hard. There’s no way they should have their heads down. We came to play.”
By advancing into the regional championship, Clark’s squad made history. The team won the program’s first-ever regional match when Greenfield-Central (7-8-2) knocked off Roncalli 2-1 in the semifinals last Wednesday to earn another crack at the Franklin Central Flashes.
Though without senior team captain and mainstay Katie Helgason, who tore her ACL against the Flashes in the first game of the season on Aug. 17, the team’s full-circle journey required unselfishness and determination.
The Cougars displayed both until the final horn on Saturday.
In their first meeting, the Flashes won handily 4-1. With both programs vying for their first regional championship Saturday, however, goals weren’t as plentiful.
Greenfield-Central junior goalkeeper Kayla Enochs and her defenders fended off nearly 10 shots on goal and kept the Flashes scoreless through the match’s first 44 minutes.
Enochs recorded six saves as Franklin Central fired 15 shots and was awarded 10 free kicks and three corner kicks.
“Overall, I think our defense played better today than we did against Roncalli,” Clark said. “We didn’t give them as many chances and we swarmed the ball.”
The Cougars’ defense showed its teeth in the first half, clearing the zone while Greenfield-Central’s offense dictated the tempo early through the first 25 minutes.
Jaeden and Trystan Ailes both had multiple looks at the net and almost connected for a near goal in the first four minutes. The sisters orchestrated another attack seven minutes into the match, but Franklin Central goakeeper Kelsey Heaton was on her game throughout, finishing with six saves.
“We had chances, but their keeper did a fabulous job. We had more good opportunities on goal. Less shots, but good opportunities,” Clark said. “I felt that we dominated the possession in the first half of the first, and the second half of the first they put more pressure on us. But Kayla made some awesome saves.”
Enochs’ deflected five solid shots on goal in the first half, including a flurry around the net with 6:21 remaining before halftime off a corner kick by Rylie Simmons. Able to reject the tailing shot by Simmons, Enochs regrouped and stonewalled a rapid putback attempt by Jenna Bishop.
Unsuccessful at point blank range, the Flashes varied their approach early in the second half, and it proved decisive.
Shelby Cleek scored the go-ahead goal with 35:12 left in the second half off a 35-yard arcing liner that sailed just over Enochs grasp.
“You replay that again and nine out of 10 times that’s not going into the goal,” Clark said. “I don’t even know if she was trying to shoot it. Kayla just got caught off her line, not expecting the shot, and it goes over her head.”
Despite the deficit, the inspired Cougars refused to give up, lacing a pair of shots on goal, challenging Heaton the final 35 minutes.
A slick touch-pass set piece initiated by Trystan Ailes to Allie Geswein to Alexandra Rupley almost tied the game, but Heaton, who collected six saves, was, once again, in perfect position. Greenfield-Central had 12 shots and seven on goal.
Lucy Brand tested Heaton with several free kick drops from long range, but her offerings narrowly missed. Brand, who lost her maternal grandmother, Joyce Elizabeth Karsko, on Sept. 23, gritted through her emotions during the match with the support of her teammates.
The Cougars honored Brand’s family by wearing wrist bands with the initials “JEK” on them.
“We put her initials on tape around our wrists to pay tribute to Lucy’s grandma. They had the service today in Florida to spread her ashes, and Lucy decided to stay here with us today,” Clark said while fighting back tears. “We wore them for her and the family.”
Brand’s soccer family showed their solidarity before leaving the field one last time Saturday. Gathering together in a circle, the team’s departing seniors led the group in its customary huddle break: “Go Cougars!”
“They were here for me 100 percent today. It meant a lot with all of them wearing her initials on their wrists,” Brand said. “I couldn’t be prouder of the team and what we accomplished. We came in here as the underdog. We weren’t even picked to win sectional and we’re here. We proved everyone wrong.”
Shelbyville Regional Championship
Franklin Central 1, Greenfield-Central 0
Goals: Shelby Cleek, FC (1)
Saves: Kayla Enochs, GC (6); Kelsey Heaton, FC (6)