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Girls soccer: Parker swings game, helps send West Forsyth to state semifinals on prom night
Gazza, Lothridge also score in 3-1 win over Walton
West Forsyth vs Walton-24
West Forsyth players and coaches celebrate after defeating Walton 3-1 Saturday afternoon to advance in the state playoffs. - photo by Dave Williamson

State Quarterfinal: West Forsyth 3, Walton 1 ; Next: State Semifinal, West Forsyth vs/at Harrison on Tuesday

West Forsyth’s prom was just a few hours away, and girls soccer coach Jason Bayush was worried if his team would be focused enough to play a state quarterfinal match against fifth-ranked Walton.

Junior defender Carsen Parker proved to her head coach that the Lady Wolverines were dialed in, single-handedly turning the game in West’s favor with 34 minutes to go in the contest. After West goalkeeper A.J. Needham hit the deck to block a shot on goal, one of Walton’s forwards thought she had a clear shot at an equalizer—then Parker seemingly popped out of the ground and took the brunt of the rocket-shot with her body. 

Three minutes later, Parker headed in a corner kick from Karson Rosenberger to give West a 2-0 lead, and the Lady Wolverines eventually prevailed with a 3-1 result Saturday at home. Freshman forward Kylie Gazza and junior April Lothridge scored West’s first and last goals, respectively.

When the contest ended, many of West’s players were simultaneously celebrating and rushing to get ready for the big dance. When prom ends, they’ll prepare for the biggest stage in West girls soccer history—a chance at an appearance in the Class AAAAAA state championship. Heading into the season West (14-4-1) had never even won a state playoff game.

You couldn’t tell that to head coach Jason Bayush, whose team jumped from a losing record to a top-ranked club in a matter of months.

“After the Lambert game at the end of the season we rest and went into the playoffs with one goal and one goal only, and that’s to win a state championship,” Bayush said. “Walton is a great team. We put pressure on them and did what we needed to do to control the game. I’m very proud of (our) team.”

Parker’s momentum-swinging display was a showcase of what Bayush sees as her playoff experience. Just a few months ago she and four other of the West soccer players were in the state final four for basketball, and Bayush thinks the momentum and mentality of that run has rubbed off on the pitch.

“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Bayush said. “I’ve never seen a team so relaxed and confident.”

Parker, understandably so, was unavailable for comment after the game as she rushed to get ready for prom. When asked about her clutch save and big goal, Bayush halted to a few tears a fewer words.

“She’s unique. She plays as hard as anyone I’ve ever coached,” Bayush said.

West’s players also had distractions in the morning, as many of them had SATs. Anticipating a hectic day, Bayush organized the school’s cosmetology department to be at the school and ready to prepare the team for prom. The team decided to get ready for the dance as a group, win or lose, at the conclusion of the contest.

“It was a worry on my mind, where their heads were going to be at,” Bayush said with a sigh of relief. “But the challenge of going and winning a huge game, that was something they were ready for. They decided as a team to get ready together and bond together, win or lose, and that’s a testament to who they are. Who wants to get ready for prom as a group? They do. They’re just a special group of girls.”

Gazza, dwarfing many players on the field despite her youth, put constant pressure on Walton’s defense in the second half. A missed scoring chance from her turned into the third goal just moments later when a deflected shot ricocheted off a Walton defender and off Lowthridge’s head with five minutes remaining.

Needham made many key stops late in the second half to keep the Lady Raiders at bay. West outshot Walton 16-9, while Needham collected seven saves.

West’s first goal came with 25 minutes to go in the first half when Gazza fired in a shot from long range. Walton keeper Ally Rzucidlo got her fingers on the ball, but not enough to keep it from finding the back of the net. Gazza was lucky to get credit for the score, as she got away with a hand ball while setting up the shot. Walton's lone goal came in the final few minutes--a header from senior Mary Leigh Amerein.

Walton had two goals called off by offsides, leaving the players visibly frustrated at the game’s conclusion. A few Walton players chose to mock the officials with loud, sarcastic chants of “great game refs” as they walked off the field.

The appearance in the final four will be the second this year for West basketball players Parker, Lothridge, Brooke Pirkle, Megan Moore and Lauren Deaton.

When asked to describe his team’s identity heading into the spotlight, Bayush let off a word at the tip of his tongue.

“Unselfish. Everyone has their role. Everyone knows their role. What they do is a testament to working together and not letting egos get in the way, especially with the caliber players we have.”

West will either visit Harrison in Kennesaw or host the semifinals match, depending on a coin flip.