Polk County goalkeeper Cate Brown fights past Christ the King's Addie Pierce to stop a scoring threat in the first half of Tuesday's match

Polk County couldn’t overcome missedĀ opportunities and strong defense from Christ the King on Tuesday, falling 5-0 in the 1A West Regional final to the two-time defending state champions.

A point-blank miss off a free-kick in the first half, and another miss on an excellent opportunity that would have tied the match at 1-1 in the first four minutes of the second half, were the Wolverines’ best chances of the night, and both times Polk County came away without a goal before a crowd of several hundred in G.M. Tennant Stadium.

“When you play a team at this level as good as they are, the belief that they must have that you’re going to get through as the two-time defending state champions, you can’t let them off the hook,” Polk County coach Lennox Charles said. “They were so solid that instead of the six or eight opportunities that we’ve been getting, today we did not.

“When you get those one or two, you have to make them count. Every time we made a mistake, they made us pay by threatening or scoring, and that was the difference. I think if we could’ve gotten one of those, especially at the start of the second half, it would have gotten our confidence up.”

The fact that the Wolverines (15-5-3) were in it at halftime was in large part due to the fact that Cate Brown was brilliant. Polk County’s freshman keeper notched save after save, particularly in the first half. She came out to challenge a shot and got a stop at the 30-minute mark. She turned away another as Mia Wolfe closed on the shooter to help at 25 minutes, then made another save just seconds later. She made a twisting, diving punch-save four minutes after that.

Brown was almost perfect in the first half, with Christ the King’s only goal coming off a corner kick for a 1-0 lead at 13:03, a lead that would hold up until deep in the second half.

“They were really pressuring us, and Cate kept us in it and gave us a chance forĀ 60 minutes,” Charles said. “Considering that we didn’t have (Maggie) McCammon for nearly all of the season, Cate and Maggie Johnson both stepped in, and Cate’s taken the starter’s spot and had what I think was her best game today, on the biggest occasion. That bodes well for us in the future.”

Polk County’s Jessica Baird and Christ the King’s Rylan Nicholson collide while fighting for a header in the first half of Tuesday’s match

Brown indeed continued her strong play in the second half, with a save at the 32-minute mark, another diving deflection at 30:10, and a challenge to turn away a chance at 22:07.

In the end, though, once the Crusaders’ chances started to mount, they eventually broke through. Rylan Nicholson banged home a goal off an assist from Addie Pierce, Kaitlyn Douglass put one in the top right corner where Brown had no chance, and Nicholson tallied again in quick succession for a 4-0 lead with 15:58 to play. Brown made two more remarkable saves before coming off, and Lindsay O’Donnell scored with 43 seconds left for the final margin.

Charles is proud of the fact that with a rocky start and a slew of injuries, the Wolverines were able to advance to the doorstep of the state championship.

“We’ve been using basically two subs from the end of the season,” he said. “This group has carried us through. Those girls have been battling every game. I’m obviously not nearly as disappointed as they are. I’ve done this long enough, and my feeling was that if we ran into a team that was just better than we are, I’ll be ok.

“Not that you’re not still disappointed, because you got this close and you’re one game away. But big picture, this season was unbelievable considering all the obstacles we had, the injuries, the depth of the team, and girls just stepping in and filling in and stepping up. I’m very proud of them.”

Polk County senior Caroline Taylor found free space to head upfield during the first half of Tuesday’s match