By Steven Watkins
For the Forsyth County News
The 2019 Lambert girls soccer team is not one accustomed to playing from behind.
Through a perfect ten region wins, a first-round 10-0 playoff rout over South Gwinett and a hard-fought yet still plenty convincing 4-0 second-round victory over Peachtree Ridge, the region 5-7A champs don’t appear to like leaving things up to chance.
And on Wednesday night in their 3-0 win in the state quarterfinal over Hillgrove, they waited practically no time in getting their much-desired advantage.
In the very first minute of the match, Lambert seized possession and immediately launched the first of what would be several perfect feeds on the night, this particular one landing at the feet of sophomore Kendall Page, who fired match’s first shot into the upper right corner of the net and gave the Horns the early lead that they sought.
“We talked about it at practice,” Page said. “About how the first and the last five minutes are just really important parts of the game, and how every minute in the beginning sets the tone for the whole game.”
They certainly didn't stop there.
For the first 40 minutes of play, the Longhorns attacked each minute, each shot, each possession and each and every minute as though they were the all-important first one.
Junior defender Melina West was an absolute nightmare for the attacking Hawks, spreading herself all over the Lambert half and leading a stifling defensive effort that limited the Hillgrove attack to a mere three shots on goal for the match.
Page and her fellow midfielders spent the match sprinting down the flanks with an urgency like a team playing from behind, consistently outrunning their opponents and serving feed after perfect feed to waiting teammates.
Lambert’s second goal came in the 17th minute. After a beautifully-placed ball from junior Sydney Hennessy lead to a Faith Ferrer cross and then a hard shot by Madison Haugen that only narrowly finished high, Hennessy came right back with the very next possession and an equally pretty feed that Ferrer herself fired off of the crossbar and into the net.
With an early 2-0 lead and the freedom that it provides, Lambert spent the majority of the first half playing their customary, aggressive style and ultimately imposing their will on the visiting Hawks.
“At some point as you get into better and better opponents in the playoffs, you’re going to find an opponent that might catch you,” Luthart said. “Whether it’s a game-tying goal, whether it’s them taking the lead and having to play from behind, that’s unfamiliar to us. So basically I preached to them the mentality of staying true to who we are, even if we do concede one, and sure enough, off their kickoff, we scored 13 seconds into the game.”
As Luthart alluded, as the remaining playoff field dwindles, so too increases the quality of the opponents, and even a two-goal lead can quickly devolve into heartbreak against a dangerous opponent.
“There were some nervous moments in the second half,” he said. “It’s that awkward, two-goal lead, which in soccer is the worst lead, because you kind of think you can relax, but if they get that goal and get back in it it’s hard to wrestle that moment back.”
Similar to the previous round, the Horns found themselves beating-back a furious comeback effort by an opponent that knew itself to be on the ropes. The Hawks attacked the second half with noticeably more aggression, winning a larger number of possessions and even managing pair of back-to-back shots on goal, both of which were saved by Lambert keeper Maddy Schulte.
“There were some nervous moments in the second half,” Luthart said. “They started to (press) and we made some bad decisions in terms of trying to get out of our own end, and maybe forced some balls and maybe didn’t respond to pressure as well as we typically do.”
As they had the previous week, Lambert held their ground, beating Hillgrove’s final attempts to save their season.
In the final five minutes, Madison Haugen found herself alone with possession behind her opponent’s back line. While many of Lambert’s second-half shots were rushed or inaccurately placed, this time the forward took her time, dribbled, and shot around the lunging keeper, finding both the net and a state semifinal slot for her team.
“That’s one of the more talented teams we’ve seen this year,” Luthart said. “They stretched us in ways that we haven’t really been stretched this year, which we kind of expected. It’s not lost on us how big that win was against a very very good squad.”
The Longhorns are set to take on Brookwood at home on Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the state semifinals