A late first-half goal having given Wilkes Central a halftime tie and plenty of momentum, Polk County head girls soccer coach Lennox Charles knew Wednesday night his squad could use an early second-half break.
Which is exactly what the Wolverines delivered.
Megan Clements scored a minute into the second half, then added another goal minutes later to spur Polk County to a 4-1 victory in first-round state 2A playoff action at Wolverine Stadium.
With the win, Polk County (18-5-1) earned a return to the scene of one of its biggest victories of the season, a 3-1 win at Shelby on March 25. The Wolverines will travel to Shelby on Saturday for a second-round matchup at a time to be determined.
Though Wilkes Central (9-11-2) entered a .500 team on paper, that record came about, in part, due to a difficult early-season schedule. The Eagles certainly didn’t play like the 22nd seed in the 2A West bracket, especially in the match’s early stages.
“I thought we showed some nerves, especially in the first 20 minutes,” Charles said. “Part of that was due to Wilkes Central. They did a good job possessing the ball. . . we were sitting back, and every time we tried to press the ball, we were a little late. I thought Wilkes Central did an unbelievable job of attacking the ball.
“I thought changing that a little bit got us back. I thought we had the better of the last 20 minutes (of the first half). We started getting to balls and winning some of those balls.”
Despite Wilkes’ initial assertiveness, it was Polk County that nearly got a goal in the early going. Thirteen minutes into the match, Miriam Santibanez fired a left-footed shot that Wilkes goalkeeper Bre Roten deflected to her right, the ball rolling along the end line. Polk County’s Ellese Cash won the race to the ball and crossed a pass perfectly in front of the net, where Santibanez knocked it toward the goal – directly into Roten’s face, the ball kicking away to her left and away from the net. Down a few minutes, Roten finally walked off the field and sat out the remainder of the half.
Polk County then had two narrow misses later in the half. In the 30th minute, Lyric Flood, at forward to give Cash a break, narrowly missed a goal, a defender first blocking a rocket from the top of the box, another shot just sailing high, then another just missing wide right. Three minutes later Flood came even closer, taking a pass from Ashley Love, dribbling into the box and firing a shot that bounced wide off the right post.
The Wolverines finally got the breakthrough goal with 2:30 left in the half as Cash pushed into the box and fired a shot from the right wing that reserve goalkeeper Emily Gant stopped, but deflected back to Cash, who put the rebound into the left corner of the net for a 1-0 lead.
That edge lasted less than two minutes, Wilkes Central senior Jazzmin Robinson scoring with 48 seconds left in the half for a 1-1 tie.
“I felt like we had some opportunities in the last 20 minutes that, even when they scored, we should still have been up a couple of goals,” Charles said. “That’s what happens when you have chances and don’t take advantage.”
The Wolverines would waste no time capitalizing on opportunity in the second half. Seconds after the opening whistle, Cash surged down the right side of the field, taking a pass and firing another to an open Clements at the top of the box. Clements took one touch on the ball, then drilled a low line drive into the left corner, beating Roten for a 2-1 lead.
Six minutes later, Caroline Lee was fouled deep in the box while looking to dribble into position for a shot. Clements took the penalty kick and calmly knocked it into the corner for a 3-1 advantage.
“If I said I planned that (the early goal), I’d be lying,” Charles said with a laugh. “We did talk about getting a good start. They’re coming out energetic and with confidence because they’re tied. That early goal was huge. You could see them deflate a little bit, and that allowed us to get that third goal. Getting the second goal so quickly in the second half was huge.”
Flood capped the scoring with 26:04 left in the game on a beautiful volley from the right side that bent into the left corner of the goal.