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Wilde Lake girls soccer uses fast start to down Centennial in county opener

When you return your entire starting lineup from a team that lost three times last season, opponents take notice, and they raise their level of play in hopes of pulling an upset.

That’s why before every game, Wilde Lake girls soccer coach Megan Shea emphasizes starting strong. Within the first 10 minutes, Shea expects the Wildecats to set the tone and establish the pace for the rest of the match. Those focal points become even more important during the county season, where Shea describes every contest as a “huge battle.”

Their first fray occurred on Thursday night against a formidable Centennial squad eager to knock off the league favorite in its first county match. But within the opening six minutes, Wilde Lake squashed those aspirations.

First came a dazzling strike from freshman Gia Johnson, then a right place, right time goal from senior Julianna Bonner off a corner kick. A Centennial own goal increased the lead to three but proved inconsequential to the final result. The Wildecats’ fast start proved more than enough in the shutout victory.

“We came out strong those first 10 minutes and were able to sustain it throughout the game,” Shea said after the 3-0 win. “Centennial did a good job making adjustments after those first 10 minutes and put a lot of pressure on us, but I think the first 10 minutes is really what set us apart.”

Bonner strike was unsurprising given her scoring prowess since moving from left back to forward after her freshman season. She led the county in scoring each of the past two years and is the reigning Howard County Times girls soccer Player of the Year. Opponents’ game plans are usually centered around stopping her.

But there’s another dangerous scoring option for Wilde Lake this season, one who Shea said has the presence of a senior and deserves just as much attention as Bonner. And in the fifth minute, she showed Centennial why.

Johnson began with the ball on the right wing as an Eagles defender approached her. She then took one touch to create enough space and fired an attempt past goalkeeper Ashley Bilger (seven saves) and into the left corner of the net. It marked Johnson’s team-high third goal of the season to go along with three assists.

“Her strength, her ability to score, her ability to hunt players down, she’s going to be a force to be reckoned with in the county for years to come,” Bonner said.

Bonner’s moment, meanwhile, came less than two minutes later thanks to exquisite timing. With Lily Dunbar’s corner kick heading towards goal, Bilger attempted to make a diving save but was intercepted by an Eagles defender, who sent a header straight into the air. With Bilger out of the play, Bonner curled from the top of the goal box to the left post and made just enough contact with the ball to send it across the goal line.

The Eagles’ misfortunes continued in the 14th minute after a miscommunication between Bilger and defender Piper Berry. As Bilger charged the oncoming ball, Berry passed back to Bilger with the hopes her goalkeeper would send it downfield. Instead, the ball rolled past Bilger and into the net for the Wildecats’ third goal of the night.

Despite entering the half with a three-goal deficit, Centennial coach Steve Baxter was impressed with how the Eagles bounced back after allowing a pair of fluky scores. Once his players improved their organization, Baxter said they began connecting more passes than they had in any of their first four matches. And they were doing so against what Baxter called “the most talented group of girls” they’ve faced all season.

The Eagles’ cohesiveness resulted in multiple scoring chances late in the opening period, and despite having just a few quality looks after the break, Baxter credited his group for keeping the Wildecats off the scoreboard.

“If we keep building off of what we did today, we’ve got a good team,” Baxter said. “Normally, I tell the girls, ‘This is a test. How good are you? Can you compete with the best teams? You look at two of the goals that were not really earned, so I think you competed great.’”

As for Wilde Lake, Shea praised her team’s toughness over anything else. Her players, while technically gifted, possess the physical and mental fortitude in pressure situations. It’s how they were able break the tie with Manchester Valley in a 2-1 win on Sept. 6.

Thursday night, however, was not nearly as stressful. The Wildecats jumped out to a comfortable advantage and kept pushing to the final whistle of their first league victory.

“Our main takeaway is just confidence,” Shea said. “I know we were putting a lot of pressure on ourselves in the beginning of the season, and I think the first couple of games, that pressure showed. And just being able to come out and to defeat a team that is as good as Centennial is and always is, I think that’s going to give us extra confidence going forward.”

Wilde Lake (1-0, 5-0) — 3, Centennial (0-1-1, 2-1-2) — 0

Goals: WL — Julianna Bonner, Gia Johnson

Saves: WL — Jenna Hutchison 4; C — Ashley Bilger 6

Halftime: 3-0, WL

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