Through the first 79 games of program history, Lambert’s girls soccer team never lost a game in which it scored at least two goals. The No. 6-ranked Lady Longhorns tallied three in contest number 80 Tuesday night, but it wasn’t enough to keep their season alive.
No. 1 seed Lambert rallied to send the game to overtime after trailing 3-1 in the final 16 minutes of regulation, but couldn’t overcome its worst defensive performance since Feb. 15, 2011 and fell to No. 4 seed North Gwinnett 5-4 on penalty kicks in the opening round of the Class 6A state playoffs at The Horn. It was only the third time in program history that Lambert has allowed more than two goals in a game.
"We’re very, very disappointed obviously in the result, but I’m so proud of the way we fought," Lambert head coach Scott Luthart said.
"Lesser teams would have folded maybe at [falling behind] 2-0; lesser teams would have definitely folded at 3-1 with 16 minutes left."
North Gwinnett (9-9) took a 2-0 lead into the second half before Lambert’s Emily Haugen scored on a shot that deflected off the goalkeeper’s hands and into the net in the 56th minute, narrowing the gap to 2-1.
Just over nine minutes later, the Lady Bulldogs extended the lead back to two goals when Taylor Flemming tapped a shot into the right side of the net from about 17 yards out. Lambert goalkeeper Sami Lucas was positioned near the right side of the net, but did not appear to pick up the ball or react to it.
"Defensively we didn’t step quick enough several times," Luthart said. "The third goal we allowed a shot that should have never happened. We were all late stepping and sliding into that space."
Lambert (14-4) struck back less than a minute later on a breakaway goal by Casey Baker, who scored again to tie the game 3-3 with just over nine minutes to play on a long, floating kick that hooked into the left side of the net from about 25 yards out.
"I honestly thought we were going to finish it in regulation, we just couldn’t get that magic fourth goal," Luthart said. "But that’s a valiant comeback in this arena and this setting."
Neither team presented a serious scoring threat during a pair of five-minute overtimes, sending the game to penalty kicks. Luthart replaced Lucas in goal with Bailey Frederking, but North Gwinnett found the advantage it needed before she ever stepped in.
Lambert’s Lauren Sykora hit the right post on the first penalty kick attempt, and although the Lady Longhorns converted each of their next four attempts, North Gwinnett was perfect on all five.
"I wish we hadn’t gotten to PKs, but the girls kept their heads up and they kept playing," North Gwinnett coach Corban Cofer said. "There were times when we slipped down a little bit. They were able to pull themselves back in, settle down and start playing our game."
The Lady Bulldogs had an upset squarely in their sights less than eight minutes into the game, after they scored two goals in a two-minute span.
Katie Strand notched the first in the sixth minute when she took a long pass down the middle of the field and found herself one-on-one with Sykora. Strand’s initial shot attempt bounced off Sykora, but she collected the rebound and rolled the ball past Lucas.
The Lady Bulldogs struck again early in the eighth minute on a corner kick that deflected off a Lambert player for an own goal.
"We did some things in the first eight minutes that really put us under," Luthart said, "just in terms of defensive shape and decisions that kind of disappoint."
Lambert played the game without senior midfielder Heather Lacy, who drew an automatic two-game suspension after receiving a red card in the Region 6-AAAAAA finale against Johns Creek.
Lacy is one of five seniors on the team who helped start the program as freshmen in 2009.
Luthart’s voice cracked with emotion as he spoke about those players’ contributions to the program.
"We have a senior group, five kids that started this program and played all four years with us, and those five kids have really put us on the map," Luthart said. "They’ve set a standard that everyone has to strive to going forward, and it’s a very, very high standard.
"It’s a terrific group of kids. They’re going to make impacts in this world much greater than [on] a soccer field, so for me to be part of it, I just feel blessed."