By Travis Jaudon
For the Forsyth County News
SAVANNAH — With 23:45 remaining in Friday's Class 1A Private girls soccer state championship game at Savannah Memorial Stadium, Cinderella seemingly found her footing.
Pinecrest Academy’s junior standout Ivey Crain took on a trio of Holy Innocents' defenders, slithered her way into the box, and was left with one defender to beat.
Crain deferred, calmly dropping the ball off to teammate Sofia Alvarez Del Pino who promptly hammered into the net for what was, at that time, the most meaningful goal in Pinecrest’s program history. The Paladins were on the verge of winning the match, up by a goal with mere minutes between them and the title. But four minutes is an eternity on the pitch.
With just over four to play in regulation, Holy Innocents' tied the score at 1-1 to send the state title into overtime and, in the first four minutes of the first extra-time period, the Bears scored twice more to seal a 3-1 victory and earn the state championship.
The first Holy Innocents’ goal, courtesy of Region 5-1A Private Player of the Year and University of Georgia signee Rachel Suttle, was controversial for Pinecrest faithful to say the least.
A cross into the box led to a loose-ball scrum just in front of goal, and Paladin keeper Ashley Kutter fought for the ball and was on the ground fighting to bring it into her grasp. She was in the process of bringing it into her chest when Suttle poked it free and into goal.
Pinecrest head coach Domenic Martelli was visibly frustrated by the lack of a call from the linesmen, and he voiced his displeasure before the extra-time session began.
“I thought [Kutter] had it in her hands,” Martelli said when asked about the no-call after the game. “I thought the line judges were going to tell the ref that she had it, but we’ll have to watch the video on that.
“I saw what I saw on that one.”
It would’ve been the first girls soccer state championship in program history for Pinecrest. Four years worth of work, four years worth of waiting, and four years of knocking at that proverbial door.
“We played well enough today to win, I thought,” said Martelli. “You play the game for 80 minutes or more sometimes and whoever can win at the end is the champion. But we thought we did enough to win after 80 minutes. After that, it got really hard for us, but I think everyone on our roster did enough today to win. They did everything we ever asked of him."
Pinecrest entered the playoffs as a fourth seed out of Region 6, forcing the Paladins to win four consecutive playoff road games to reach Savannah.
Although they were just one game back from the region’s top spot when the regular season ended, running through the four-game gauntlet to reach the championship was no small task. The Paladins knocked off two 1-seeds and a 2-seed to reach their date with the Bears of Holy Innocents', a 1-seed in its own right.
Pinecrest advanced to the GHSA Class A Private Final Four in three of its four seasons, with the only exception being 2020 when COVID-19 changed the state’s playoff plans. The Paladins lost in the semifinals in 2018 before falling in the state championship to Wesleyan in 2019.
“Only thing left is the title now,” Martelli said last week after Pinecrest's 2-1 overtime semifinal victory over Atlanta International.
It may still be the last hurdle left to clear for one of Georgia’s top prep girls soccer programs.
“We were road warriors. We were a 4-seed and we still had a good shot at beating the best team in the state of Georgia,” Martelli said after Friday's loss. “I’m still so proud of these girls. I’m proud of the school. I’m proud of the parents who supported us and came down here. I’m just proud right now.”
The first half was a stalemate on the scoreboard, as neither squad could find the back of the net. In the opening 40 minutes, it was Holy Innocents' that seemed to dominate possession and produce more legitimate scoring chances.
Up to the task, the Paladin defense, anchored by freshman goalkeeper Kutter, held the Bears scoreless despite Holy Innocents' having plenty of shots. To start the second half, Pinecrest avoided near disaster when a Bears’ shot ricocheted off a side post.
Minutes later, the Paladins had multiple scoring chances of their own. Pinecrest had three corner-kick opportunities coming with 35:45, 35:10 and 29:20 remaining in the match. All three were fruitless, but the Crain cross would soon remedy that.
Olivia Hutcherson and Caroline Bellisle scored the two extra-time goals for the Bears. Bellisle, the school’s second all-time leading scorer, knocked in 38 goals this season as a senior.
Martelli said his freshman keeper was great in the game, and he was quick to note that his club returns plenty of talent next season, led by Crain [a William & Mary commit].
“I’m proud of these girls and this team,” Martelli said. “We’ll remember the loss, and it will hurt for some time, but I told the team afterward, ‘I hope you remember what you did here today.’
“And I’ll just say this. We are going to be back.”
HOLY INNOCENTS 3, PINECREST ACADEMY 1 (OT)
PA -- 0 - 1 - 0 -- 1
HI -- 0 - 1 - 2 -- 3
Goals -- HI, Rachel Suttle, Olivia Hutcherson, Caroline Bellisle; PA Sofia Alvarez Del Pino.
Assists -- PA, Ivey Crain.