By DENNY SEITZ
The W.A. Hough High girls soccer team moved a step closer to a state championship on Friday, surviving a grudge match with I-MECK rivals Lake Norman to advance to the state 4A semifinals for the second straight season.
Lindsay Byrne scored just 22 seconds into the tightly-contested game, then assisted on a Hannah Robinson goal with 4:30 left in the game to help the Huskies win their 22nd straight, improving to 23-0-1 overall.
Lake Norman ends its season with a record of 22-3, all three losses coming at the hands of the Huskies.
“They were 22-0 against everybody else in the state,” Hough coach David Smith said. “To beat a team like that three times in one season …”
Smith let his words hang in the air.
Of all the Huskies’ games this year, this third meeting of the season with the Wildcats just might have been the toughest. The teams never had any kind of emotional letdown, battling throughout the high-intensity affair. The outcome clearly could have been different, and both coaches knew it.
In fact, the coaches – Lake Norman’s Jon Mertes and Hough’s Smith – spent the minutes immediately after the game praising and encouraging their opponents, even before addressing their own players.
“You guys are the best team in the state,” Mertes told the Hough players, who had circled around him. “You play together as a unit. You work hard.”
The unique nature of the praise wasn’t lost on Smith, who told his players so much in his own post-game address.
“That’s what others see and think of you, what he just said,” Smith told his team. “I could not be more proud.”
The difference on Friday night might have been the play of sophomore goalkeeper Marnie Merritt, who made a half-dozen tough saves on close-in shots, including three in a five-minute span midway through the second half that kept the score 1-0 in favor of Hough. Smith called Merritt the best goalkeeper in the state and said even the loss of goalkeeper Emily Rusk, the 2011 I-MECK Player of the Year, hasn’t affected the team the way many thought it might.
“We had Emily last year,” Smith said, “and we haven’t dropped off one bit this season,” he said.
Said Lindsay Byrne: “Marnie Merritt saves our (butt) every game.”
Meanwhile, Byrne, who along with her sister Morgan, and teammate Alison Stearns are all headed to UNC Wilmington next season on soccer scholarships, spearheaded the team’s offensive charge on Friday.
Smith told his team it was important to start fast, but none of his players thought he was looking for a goal in the game’s first 22 seconds. But that’s precisely what he got: A lobbed ball, a perfectly placed shot over the head of the Lake Norman goalkeeper, a score on a shot Byrne said she wasn’t exactly planning.
“I hit it with my left foot,” she said, “and thought it was way high.”
The goal was all Merritt would need, but her teammates added an insurance goal at the end to seal the deal. The final goal started with a direct kick by Byrne from 35 yards out that was right at the Lake Norman keeper. When the ball caromed off her hands, Robinson was there amidst the scramble for the ball and one-timed it into the back of the net with 4:30 left, all but securing the victory and sending the Huskies to the semifinals.
That semifinal will be played next Tuesday or Wednesday against the winner of Saturday’s Ardrey Kell-Providence game. The Huskies have already beaten each team this season.
“Last year we made it to the semifinals,” Byrne said. “Our goal this year was to go further.”
DOWNLOAD the Division 4A playoff bracket at NCHSAA.org.