For a second, South Carroll girls soccer senior Megan O’Neill thought she was cursed.
Late in the first half at Glenelg on Wednesday night, coach Andrew Isacco called on O’Neill to take a penalty shot after a Cavaliers player induced contact in the box. O’Neill readied herself, trotted up to the ball and unleashed a liner towards the goal. However, the shot sailed wide to the right.
Minutes into the second frame, O’Neill had another golden opportunity to score. She corralled a through ball on the left side and outran the Gladiators defenders. She then unloaded an attempt that skidded past the goalie but then hit the left crossbar.
“I was like, ‘I’ve got to follow this one up,’” O’Neill said. “I thought that I was jinxed or something.”
Finally, O’Neill received some good fortune. The ball rolled back to her, and with goalkeeper Kendall Castor on the ground after trying to make a diving save, O’Neill easily finished the rebound attempt, breaking the 1-1 tie.
Glenelg put together some quality scoring chances later in the period but could not convert, meaning O’Neill’s goal served as the difference maker in the Cavaliers’ season-opening victory.
“She’s one of our toughest players,” Isacco said. “It’s her third year on varsity. She’s mentally strong and she’s physically strong. I don’t worry about her. I know she’s always got our back, and just puts stuff aside and goes back out there. In the second half she showed it. She went out and she scored a goal, and as a coach, you live to have players like that.”
It was a back-and-forth affair between the Cavaliers (1-0 overall) and their Howard County counterpart, which split its first two games of the season. There were penalty kicks and precise through balls. Each team had several chances to score, though the opposing defenses thwarted many of those with their technique and tenacity.
The first goal, which occurred about 16 minutes into the match, came during a scrum near the Gladiators’ net. Players from both sides kicked the ball around before it landed on the foot of junior Katie Carroll, who saw plenty of open space in front of her. She then calmly finished to open the scoring.
The Gladiators, meanwhile, struggled to create shots around the net early on. They’d bring the ball into the attacking third, only to lose possession or have a Cavaliers player clear the ball away. Junior goalkeeper Paige Abbott, making her first-career varsity start, was rarely tested before the break.
There were a few chances, though, like when Glenelg senior midfielder Hope Grzebien made a run down the right side and towards the goal. She could not get a shot off but forced the next best scenario: a foul in the box.
With five minutes left before intermission, Grzebien followed coach Christian von Rautenkranz’s advice about keeping her penalty shot on the ground and letting it skid on the wet turf. She directed her shot to the left, where Abbott could not get to in time.
“It’s no surprise that Hope is most likely one of our better players on this team,” von Rautenkranz said. “She’s the heartbeat for us, and you always trust your calm hand in a [penalty kick] situation.”
The scored remained tied for fewer than 10 minutes before South Carroll surged ahead, but playing from behind actually seemed to ignite the Gladiators’ offense. The defenders and midfielders continued to hit balls over the top that senior forward Emily Nalls was able to track down. With about 20 minutes to play, she corralled a pass and quickly sent a grounder towards the right post. The strike forced Abbott (seven saves) to make a diving stop and resulted in Glenelg’s first corner kick.
At the 14-minute mark, it was the Gladiators turn to create a scrum near the goal. The ball bounced around several times, and if it dropped in the right spot, Glenelg would have tied the game. Instead, Abbott charged the ball, slid and knocked it away from danger. The Gladiators would not have a chance that promising for the rest of the match.
Despite the one-goal defeat, von Rautenkranz was pleased with the performances of his position groups. They worked together to stay with one of Carroll County’s top teams.
Now, the Gladiators’ focus becomes playing their style of soccer all the time, not just in spurts.
“We’re playing better every game, and we’ll try to, by the first playoff game, be able to play 80 minutes of consistent good soccer,” von Rautenkranz said Wednesday. “I thought today we were on and off: 10 minutes of good soccer and 10 minutes of maybe not defending as well or being in a slump. So, as a team, the moment that we can get 80 minutes of my starting 11, 12th and 13th coming on and being efficient and playing the type of soccer we know we can get to, I think that we’ll be a very, very dangerous team come playoffs.”
South Carroll (1-0 overall) — 2, Glenelg (1-2) — 1
Goals: SC — Katie Carroll, Megan O’Neill; G — Hope Grzebien (PK).
Saves: SC — Paige Abbott 7; G — Kendall Castor 2.