Everything needed to be perfect.
So much was on the line for Lambert’s girls soccer rematch against West Forsyth on Tuesday. While it was potential revenge for their last meeting — their first regular-season loss in two years — it was also about playoff positioning.
With the Longhorns trailing the Wolverines by two goals in a head-to-head tiebreaker, they needed that same amount to take sole control of the race for the Region 5-7A title.
With so much hinging on one game, head coach Scott Luthart weighed all his options. He barely slept the night before, waiting until the 11th hour to decide what system to approach and orchestrate the rematch with after the Wolverines outplayed them in the midfield last week.
A few players took some inspiration from the collegiate ranks. Before the game, Taylor Clark showed Madison Haugen a highlight from Kansas’ women’s team, a squad that former teammate Ellie Prybylski is now a part of. One particular goal stood out to Clark, and she showed it to Haugen, Lambert’s top goal scorer.
“I told Madison, ‘Envision this tonight. Envision us scoring it,’” Clark said.
It took more than a half, but the Longhorns replicated the play Clark saw almost to a tee. With 17:55 left in the game, Haugen approached West’s goal from the left and slotted the ball in front of the net, where Clark was waiting.
“It happened,” Clark said. “It was almost the same exact thing.”
But even up a score, Lambert still needed one more. West almost escaped with the slim region lead, but Emerson Zimmerman added the goal the Longhorns needed with just minutes left, giving Lambert a critical 2-0 victory.
With Lambert and West now tied 2-2 in head-to-head goal differential, the tiebreaker goes to goal differential in the region, which the Longhorns currently lead by two.
“(West) had the better of us in the first meeting in all phases of the game,” Luthart said. “They were impressive. They were impressive today as well. I kind of put it on our seniors, of which we have 11 of them... I put it on them not to let that sweep happen as they walked off this field for the last time, probably.
“We asked everybody to give us everything they could and then some, and I can't ask any more out of this bunch.”
Zimmerman’s goal, which came with just 2:19 remaining, came on an assist from Clark, on a pass that was intended for Haugen.
“I know I was nervous because I saw Madison miss it and I didn't see Emerson on the back post,” Clark said. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, that was our shot.’ But then seeing that ball go in the back of the net, it's just butterflies in your stomach because you know how big and how important that goal was and finishing the game off.”
But it wasn’t just the forwards that played a big role. Sydney Hennessey disrupted plenty of West passes at center back, helping keep the game tied before Lambert finally broke through.
“Sydney Hennessey is a world-class soccer player,” Luthart said. “I would argue that she might be the best soccer player that has ever put that uniform on for this group. You can see in a game like this, how there's a different level. It's not that she doesn't play at the top of her game all the time, but when you think there's not any more that a student athlete can contribute to a game, (she does).”
West still had its chances, though. Savannah Booker had a shot bounce off the top post in the first half, and Ava Martin had some misses. Haylee Dornan played well in goal for the Wolverines, but West ultimately couldn’t keep the second score out of their net.
“You'd think for another four minutes you can go without letting them score another goal,” West coach Jason Galt said. “We weren't able to do that.
“We've got to win out. If we can finish No. 2, we're still hosting a playoff game, which hasn't happened too many times here. If we can finish out and win the rest of our region games, we can let the whole tiebreaker thing fall where it may.”
For Lambert, the rare loss last week may have been what they needed to refocus. They will more than likely need to win out in region play to stave off West, but they’re confident they can do that.
“I think it just shows that we're still in this,” Hennessey said. “Don’t count us out. Even if we have a loss, don't count us out. Every single person, even players off the bench, we're dangerous. If you stop one, you've got 10 others.”