With a light but still-drenching rain falling down on him, normally stoic West Forsyth girls lacrosse coach Chris Keifer couldn’t help but show his amazement, with both hands on his head, mouth agape, audibly asking himself and everyone around him: “Did that just happen?”
Not long before that moment, West Forsyth’s girls lacrosse season was just three minutes away from ending in the state quarterfinals. Johns Creek had scored its second goal in five minutes to give themselves a two-score lead. The Wolverines had fought through a very rough start and had even tied it twice, but with time running out, it briefly looked like all that fight would be for nothing. Still, the Wolverines tried to keep an even head.
“I think the biggest thing when you're down like that is you have to keep a focus on the sideline, especially as coaches,” Keifer said. “If we show crazy, then they'll get crazy, and you just can’t do that. You have to keep it together for them -- that's hard at that point, obviously.”
That calm ultimately paid off for the Wolverines, who did exactly what they needed to do, forcing a three-minute sudden death overtime period after tying the game 9-9. After goalkeeper Kylie Jameson made three critical saves in the extra period, West finally got the ball back with under a minute left, running and passing down the field as fast as they could as the scoreboard clock in front of them ran down.
Ultimately, the game-winning shot came down to exactly who the Wolverines wanted to take it: Cami Merkel, the sophomore that has been so instrumental to their success. With just 5.4 seconds remaining in overtime, she connected on her fifth and most critical goal, spurring a celebration and completing a thrilling 10-9 comeback victory. With the win, West advances to the state semifinals for the first time in school history.
“I'm so excited,” Merkel said. “In all of the time I've played West youth lacrosse, I never thought I would be here, but I know I've wanted it for so long, and I've always just wanted to make it.”
FINAL in OT: West Forsyth 10, Johns Creek 9. Cami Merkel gets the golden goal for the the Wolverines with 5.4 seconds left in overtime after some close calls in sudden death. West is headed to the Class 7A state semifinals. What. A. Game. pic.twitter.com/xD1unJ8a8A— David Almeda (@Dave_Almeda) May 10, 2019
The Wolverines had to claw and fight just to have a chance at that golden goal, though. Still down 9-7 with 1:36 to play, Merkel was granted a penalty shot, and while the ball fell out of her stick before she would have wanted, it rolled on the ground into the net for a score to narrow the Gladiator lead to one. With 1:17 to play, Reagan Wawrek was West’s final hope as she lined up for her own shot, and she came through to tie the game at nine.
“I was shaking on the crease,” Wawrek said. “I was just like, ‘I have to make this for my team and I have to do this.’ I didn't get into my head. I knew where I wanted to shoot and and I just shot.
“It doesn't even feel real. When we went into overtime, I felt in my bones that we were going to win.”
In the first half, things didn’t look quite as certain. West was sloppy out of the opening draw, and allowed Johns Creek’s first goal just 11 seconds in. The Wolverines were plagued by bad passes that were sometimes intercepted, struggled to maintain ball control and had shots that fell out of their sticks. Johns Creek, meanwhile, was finding open running and passing lanes to take advantage of.
“We were really anxious,” Merkel said. “We came out of the locker room and were not ready.”
But despite their less-than-ideal performance to start the night, Merkel’s three early wraparound goals and Emma Sindersine's play in front of the net kept the deficit manageable by halftime, with West down 6-3 at the break.
“They were running up and down the field on us and we had to make some adjustments,” Keifer said. “That’s what good coaches do -- they change things and they put their players in the best position to win.”
West quickly evened it up at 6-6 with scores from Merkel, Wawrek and Jenna Burrow. The Wolverines fell behind again with 10 minutes left, but Kate Pulliam knotted it up again at 7-7 before the thrilling finish.
“The grit that our girls show every game is amazing,” Keifer said. “They never give up. That's our motto this year. It came to fruition: West don't quit.”