With 2:26 to play on the Class 7A girls soccer state championship game at McEachern High School, elation consumed the Lambert girls soccer team. The Longhorns had been on the back foot for much of the match against North Gwinnett, losing physical battles and struggling to complete sustained moves forward, but they had struck with suddenness late: Madison Haugen crossed a ball from the left side to Faith Ferrer, and she volleyed the ball into a vacant section of the goal. The expected outcome suddenly looked almost assured.
But the feeling would last for just 29 seconds of game time. The Bulldogs pushed forward again, and Aliah Kitchens headed a ball from a free kick off the crossbar and in. When regulation ended, the North Gwinnett headed towards the sideline with smiles and yells of excitement, while the Longhorns walked quietly to their bench.
"You go from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows," Lambert sophomore midfielder Maddie Franz said.
Lambert could never regain the celebratory mood. The Longhorns got through extra time scoreless and had an early advantage in the penalty kick shootout, but they wound up falling 5-4 in penalties, giving their dominant season a sobering end.
"I'm disappointed for them," Lambert head coach Scott Luthart said. "In no way am I disappointed in them. I think when the emotions of today clear, we're going to realized what a stellar season we had. That's not going to help the hurt they're going through right now."
Luthart did not sense much pressure or anxiety surrounding the Longhorns before the game. They sang on the bus ride over and were full of energy during their pregame routine.
But almost immediately after the opening kickoff, North Gwinnett made things unusually difficult for the Longhorns.
It was a combination of factors allowing the Bulldogs to do so. Kitchens was one of the most dangerous forwards Lambert had seen, and the Longhorns had to devote more than the usual amount of defensive attention her way. The pitch at McEachern was narrower than what the Longhorns were used to, which played against their preference of playing balls out wide to wingers or full-backs. And the Bulldogs simply won more balls and filled more space in the middle of the field, where much of the play was directed.
"I'm going to take ownership of this one," Luthart said. "I don't push the right buttons today, and I'm confident that we're better than what we showed. But at the same time, I think North Gwinnett exposed some things in us that we didn't know were there, and I didn't push the right buttons to fix those."
The Longhorns had a few more chances after the goals both in regulation and extra time, but none with the necessary quality for a goal. Maddy Schulte’s diving save gave Lambert an early boost in penalties, but the Bulldogs didn’t miss another after that, and the Longhorns missed two.
Lambert was visibly crushed as North Gwinnett celebrated, with both seniors and prospective returners shedding tears and embracing. The disappointment of the season’s end conflicted with pride in how wildly successful it was: A 22-1-0 final mark, with 108 goals scored and just four allowed.
But in the hours after the game, that didn’t do much to help.
"I'll feel proud about it tomorrow," Luthart said. "But to be honest: Today, we're gutted."