Ally Clearfield sent the corner kick toward the scrum at the front of the net, hoping an Atholton teammate would exploit the opportunity in Tuesday night’s 3A East Section II girls’ soccer semifinals.
The ball dropped into the cluster, bouncing off a whiffing Atholton striker and a Centennial defender. That’s when Lilly Decellas muscled her way to the forefront, just a few feet from the goal, and redirected the ball into the back of the twine, prompting a jubilant celebration for the game’s first strike.
Even though the goal came early, at the 29:20 mark of the first half, its significance heightened as each minute ticked away in a contest that granted few chances. On the other end, freshman goalie Dahlia Bedward locked down the cage and the Raiders’ backs disrupted the opposing offense with its length.
Centennial kept pushing, but that’s all Atholton needed to reach the 3A East Section II finals in a 1-0 win on the eve of Halloween. The No. 2-seeded Raiders (6-5-2) will now host No. 5-seeded Mt. Hebron on Thursday at 5 p.m. — two wins away from their second straight region title.
“That was our main goal in the first half: to get a quick goal and hold on to that lead,” Atholton coach Stephanie Stoutenborough said. “[Bedward] is a beast back there.”
Atholton and Centennial both generated nine shots throughout the 80 minutes. Bedward, who made her first playoff appearance between the pipes, dazzled in a seven-save outing.
“It was very busy, very stressful. I was ready,” said Bedward, who admitted to having jitters before the game and in the early minutes. But after rattling off a few routine saves to get things going, she reverted back to what she knows best.
“After the first few minutes, [the jitters] went away,” she said.
Bedward’s highlight of the night came in the frenzied final stages. Centennial, which had three corner tries to Atholton’s two, had a prime opportunity to knot things at 1-1 with their third and final corner kick from the left side in the final minute. Instead, the Eagles never had a shot, as Bedward timed the corner kick perfectly to aggressively pluck the ball out of the air.
Centennial’s first two corner opportunities came midway in the second half, both of which were interfered to some degree by Bedward.
“She’s sneaky good,” Centennial coach Steven Baxter said.
In the regular season meeting, Atholton survived a similar game to Tuesday night — a 2-1 grinder that was mostly a battle of attrition. In the previous 12 games, the Raiders had only scored 18 times, so leading up to their second go-around with the Eagles, Stoutenborough emphasized the need to get out wide and possess the ball.
Atholton did that early and often, and it led to Decellas' decisive strike, which came off a corner kick.
“This week we’ve been working on keeping it wide and getting those crosses in,” Decellas said. “So, when we got it wide, we happened to get a corner. Ally Clearfield serving the ball, she has one of the best corner kicks I’ve ever played with. I know it’s going to the back post every time. So I was just in the area and finished it.”
From there, Bedward and Atholton flexed their defensive muscle. Bedward made a pivotal save five minutes after the lone goal of the game, when a Centennial striker launched a free kick to the front of the net. With three minutes left in the first half, Alyssa Barker and the Atholton defense snuffed out two more free kicks and with 15:30 left in the contest Bedward recorded another defining save.
For Centennial, Baxter felt his team generated enough opportunities to be more deserving, unlike the previous meeting 12 days ago, when he thought Atholton played better than his group.
“In the second half, especially, I thought we dominated,” Baxter said. “A couple of those corners, we were so close. We needed that one break this year and the break didn’t come our way. Atholton executed and finished.”
The Eagles’ (6-6-1) end didn’t come from a lack of effort. Baxter preached the need to ramp up the intensity on both ends of the field. For the most part, that happened. They just couldn’t punch in the conclusive strike.
“I felt like we did a good job,” Baxter added. “We made adjustments. We didn’t allow them to have lots of opportunities on our goal. In the second half, I don’t know how many saves [Ashley Bilger] had to make (three), but it wasn’t much. I’m proud of that. We just didn’t finish.”