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Soccer: County teams have known agony, thrill of PKs this season
FCN PKs 042317 web
Lamberts Maddie Eddleman, above, and goalkeeper Jordyn Ebert have known the tension of deciding games in penalty kicks all too well this season. - photo by Micah Green

Ellie Prybylski stares at the goal and takes a short step back.

With her eyes still straight ahead, she hunches over, as if ducking under a low ceiling, then starts towards the ball and straightens her left arm at her side. She chops her steps as she approaches the ball and hits it with her left foot.

It sails, untouched, into the left side of the goal and hits the net with enough force to send it bouncing back. The goalkeeper can only offer a turn of the head. Lambert wins, again, the Longhorns’ third victory of the region schedule in penalty kick shootouts.

In Region 5-7A’s girls soccer scene this year, penalty kick shootouts have been particularly important, serving as one of the biggest factors in separating the teams in the region’s tightly packed upper half. Lambert has won two shootouts over West Forsyth and one over South Forsyth. West has lost the two against the Longhorns and won one over South, who has lost both of its shootouts in the region.

Shootouts are the final step teams take to decide a game in region play and in the playoffs, where there are no ties. If a game is tied after regulation, teams play two five-minute extra time periods. If it’s still tied after that, they go to penalties.

That’s when players are tested on a skill that has little bearing on their overall ability and is rarely used outside the high school season.

Penalty kicks are like free throws, in some ways. They utilize a common skill – shooting or striking the ball – and winnow it down to its purest form, removing almost all interference. Repetition and mindset are taught more than form, at least at the high school level. The greatest threat is pressure, even for goalkeepers.

“Technically I'm not supposed to save any, so it shouldn't be as nerve-wracking as it is,” Lambert keeper Jordyn Ebert said. “But I put the pressure on myself.”

The way kicks are taught can vary, but there are a few commonalities: Keep your eye on the ball, aim for a corner, don’t let the keeper’s antics psych you out. Players generally know which side they’re aiming for before they begin their run-up. Some keepers choose a side to sell out towards, while others try to read a kicker’s motions. Ebert tries to focus on the plant foot.

But there’s plenty of room for customization. Players can hit the ball with the side of their foot, like a pass, or with their shoelaces, like a strike. (The latter sacrifices power for accuracy.) Some players hit the ball with the same foot every time, while others go with either.

West’s Kylie Gazza is one of the ambidextrous types. She also throws some deception into her kicks, using a slow run-up modeled after Barcelona star Neymar.

Trickery also played a role in how Prybylski arrived at her current form. Goalkeepers can try to predict which way a kick is going by looking at which way a player’s body is facing, so she figured that it would be harder to do that if she was hunched over. She started developing the motion at the end of her freshman year, and now, as a sophomore, it’s fully formed.

“When everyone saw the film, they were like, ‘Ellie, that was such a weird run-up,’” Prybylski said. “I was like, ‘Eh, it worked!’”

As important as repetition may be, though, a player’s routine is almost always negotiable.

“If one thing works, then you do it,” Gazza said. “And if it stops working, then you try something different.”

Penalty kicks are a skill, one that can be practiced and improved and that certain players have a knack for. Whether it’s a skill that should determine and winner and loser is a more controversial subject.

“I've never thought PKs were a good way to decide a game,” Lambert head coach Scott Luthart said.

Shootouts have been kind to the Longhorns this year, but that hasn’t made Luthart change his tune. It isn’t right, in his mind, to have a game where both teams have been so equal in every other area be decided with a dead ball situation. West head coach Jason Bayush has a similar view.

“It's a team game – it's not a 1 on 1 thing,” Bayush said.

West and Lambert’s players are a bit more sympathetic in their views. Wolverines junior Kristy Jebavy mentioned the danger of late-game situations, when players get more tired and lazy and start making more reckless plays. Ebert and Prybylski recognized that a game has to end eventually.

But no player was convinced that a shootout was the perfect way to decide a game.

“(It goes) from such competitive play, tight soccer, near misses and all that stuff, and then you go to straight up shooting on goal,” Prybylski said.

“I don’t think it’s a good method of determining who is the better team,” Ebert said.

There’s no obvious replacement for shootouts, though. Luthart would like to see a sudden-death overtime where a single goal would end the game, which would provide both drama and tactical intrigue. Bayush would be okay with games ending in a tie and goal differential being used to separate teams.

Nobody refuses to accept a win in penalties, though.

“Soccer’s like a chess match in a lot of cases,” Luthart said. “And you can have a stalemate sometimes.”

A win in regulation is less nerve-wracking and has “a little bit more merit,” Luthart said. For West’s players, the losses in penalty kicks are different from those in regulation: encouraging because the Wolverines know they stuck with their opponent for 90 minutes, but frustrating because it’s harder to know what they need to fix.

And much as Prybylski recognizes the flaws with penalties and dislikes taking them, she can’t deny the excitement of winning a shootout, the sudden rush of a win when a shot goes in or a keeper makes a save.

“In overtime, it’s very stressful, and then when it goes to PKs, you’re even more stressed out,” she said. “But then when you win, it’s way more exciting, because it’s that winning kick or that winning save. Everyone is just so happy and relieved.”

After Pybylski’s game-winning kick, which came on March 28 and gave Longhorns their second win over West, she didn’t hide either emotion. She started back towards her teammates at midfield, but soon turned back to where Ebert, who had made a save on West’s last attempt, was running towards her.

The two players embraced, showing that even when you win at something that reduces soccer to its most individualistic, you win as a team.