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Soccer: Lambert shuts out Walton to earn spot in Class 7A championship
Lambert players swarm senior Emerson Zimmerman after she scored what proved to be the game-winning goal Monday during a 1-0 win against Walton in the Class 7A Final Four. - photo by David Roberts

Maddie Franz never thought she would spend her senior season playing center back.

Scott Luthart is glad she is.

Franz and the Lambert defense posted its 14th shutout of the season, Emerson Zimmerman provided the game-winning goal, and the Longhorns beat Walton 1-0 Monday to secure a rematch with West Forsyth in the Class 7A state championship match.

"It's so exciting. I'm so, so, so proud of this team,” Franz said. “I played DA last year but I came back this year, and they graduated 11, so how we've built this team since the start of this season is insane if you would have looked at us at the start of the season and looked at us now. I'm so, so proud of them. Our defense has always been strong, our forward always comes through and our midfield is always moving dynamically. I love these girls. Our team chemistry is perfect."

Originally an outside back, Franz shifted to center back at the beginning of the season after an injury to junior Ella Zimmerman.

Franz said fellow center back Kate Borner has been instrumental in her growth at the position, and the two helped establish Lambert’s aggressive brand of defense early in the match.

Franz made one impressive play late in the first half, where she used a perfectly timed slide tackle to halt Walton’s attack and allow Lambert’s defense to reset, effectively thwarting the Raiders’ momentum.

"Her instincts are so good and her awareness is so good that she'll step and win a lot of balls,” Luthart said. “So, if you as a forward are checking and if you brake early, she's going to step right around you and win it."

Zimmerman’s goal seven minutes into the match proved to be all the Longhorns needed.

It was a majestic score from a Caroline Casperson pass and off Zimmerman’s left foot, nipping the bottom half of the cross bar and falling down and into the net.

Luthart spoke before the game about wanting to get his forwards more involved in the scoring.

"She's a clinical finisher. She's had a bunch like that this year,” Luthart said. “In a big game like this, I kind of talked in pregame about how I wanted my forwards to be visible and be lethal. I know we get a lot of input on the scoreboard from the midfield lately, which is great, because that makes it harder for them to stop us as a team because we have so many weapons, but in a big game like this, a lot of times you're going to expect a forward to be the one to kind of pull you through to get the game-winner."

Lambert opened the match with intense pressure from its back line and midfield, challenging each Walton possession.

Casperson intercepted a pass deep inside Walton’s third of the field early, forcing the Raiders to knock it out of play and allow Lambert its first corner of the match just two minutes in.

Zimmerman struck five minutes later, scoring from about 35 yards out.

"Emerson's left-footed shot is killer,” Franz said. “I mean, she's hit so many of them this season. Whenever she gets the ball on her left foot and defenders don't recognize that it's her left, I'm like, 'Uh-oh, here she comes.'"

Casperson nearly added another off an open look 90 seconds later, but the ball bounced off the top post.

Walton had a couple of chances midway through the first half, first on a corner then on a free kick, but each attempt was saved by Lambert keeper Heidi Harris.

"To Walton's credit, they gameplanned and essentially when they didn't have the ball, it was more of a 4-5-1, and when they wanted, they sprung a midfielder up top and went 4-4-2,” Luthart said. “As a coach trying to adjust on the fly during a match, that's hard to explain in the middle of play. We kind of addressed it at halftime, but I'm just super proud of our defense. Against a team like that plays like that, and has that much talent and ability, and to hold them off the scoreboard — we bent, but we didn't break."

Walton entered the match with a 14-3 record and had not been shut out all season. Moreover, the Raiders were averaging more than four goals per game, notching 73 goals in 17 matches.

The Longhorns managed to hold Walton in check for the second half, too, as the Raiders were unable to crack Lambert’s back line or solve Harris, who snagged a pair of saves in the final 2:25 of play.

"Credit to them. I mean, they came to play today,” Franz said. “They had pace going forward, and we were able to slow it down, so we did good at that. They were pressing us all game long and never stopped putting us under pressure. It was hard for us to build out of the back, but we were able to get that goal early and hold them off."

Lambert will try for its second state championship in program history against West Forsyth.

"When you have a team like this, those are the greatest words you can hear, because it means you're playing until the end of the GHSA calendar,” Luthart said. “That's all you can hope for when you've got a bunch of kids that work as hard as they do."