It really wasn’t fair to either team. They both deserved better.
But there they were - arch rivals Western Alamance and Eastern Alamance - battling it out Tuesday night in the first round of the NCHSAA 3A women’s soccer state playoffs.
The Eagles and Warriors combined for a 29-6-1 overall record in the regular season, finishing second and third, respectively, in the Mid-State Conference.
Both teams suffered two regular season losses each to regular season champ Northern Guilford. Those two setbacks to the Nighthawks were the only losses Eastern has suffered all season thus far.
Western Alamance took two losses to Eastern in the regular season, including a brutal shootout back in March. The four losses to Northern Guilford and Eastern Alamance were Western Alamance’s only four losses in the regular season.
But the NCHSAA’s seeding wasn’t terribly kind to the Eagles and Warriors, as they seeded the Eagles with the No. 11 seed in the East Region, and Western with the No. 22 seeding, producing a third matchup between the two rivals in the first round.
As it turned out, Eastern and Western were not only destined for another shootout in their third and final matchup this spring. They were destined for what ultimately had to be one of the most dramatic, intense, and thrilling soccer matches of these young womens’ prep careers thus far.
It began as a defensive stalemate between two outstanding defensive teams. Of Eastern’s 16 regular season triumphs heading into the state playoffs, 13 had been by shutout. Western recorded 10 shutouts in the regular season, including five straight during one stretch in April.
Although EAHS’s Morgan Nixon nearly scored early off an excellent pass from Sarah Widderich a dozen minutes in, the Eagles were ultimately shut out in the first half.
Western Alamance controlled the tempo and held possession for most of the opening 40 minutes, keeping the ball on its side of the field and challenging Eastern goalkeeper Anneke Brouwer repeatedly.
Western scored the game’s first goal at the 26:48 mark of the opening half, as freshman Avalyn Ward found the net off a Warriors corner kick. The Warriors continued to keep the pressure up on the Eagles defense, forcing Brouwer to make a catch save just a couple minutes after scoring the first goal. Shortly after that, Western fired a hard shot that missed just left of the goal.
Brouwer had to make a diving save for the Eagles at the 20:45 mark of the first half - one of 12 saves she would ultimately make prior to the final shootout - and then another catch save a few seconds after that. Eastern briefly pushed into Western territory, as Widderich tried to set up teammate Avery Griggs deep, but Western’s goalkeeper caught the ball just before Griggs would have had a chance to kick it in.
The game went into halftime with Western leading 1-0, as Brouwer made another huge diving save around the 13:52 mark of the first half.
As the second half got going, the Eagles began to get more of a consistent attack offensively.
Finally, at the 26:28 mark of the second half, Natalie Sawyer provided the equalizer for EA. The Eagles had been getting more penetration upfield into WA’s defensive pressure, and Sawyer managed a clean shot that sliced right and through the pipes for a 1-1 score.
Eastern kept up the attack, as Widderich nearly gave the Eagles the lead just a few minutes later. Megan Banko got a great shot around the 23:00 mark but couldn’t get it through, and then redeemed herself at the 21:22 mark. Banko got off a high line drive kick that Western’s goalkeeper tried to catch, but the ball slid through her hands and into the goal for a 2-1 EAHS advantage.
The remaining 20 minutes of regulation became a fight for survival for the Eagles, as they sought to hold off the Warriors without having to go into overtime.
Brouwer continued her inspired play in goal for Eastern at the 19:45 mark, making a brilliant diving save after Western striker Silken Carlton worked her way within a few feet of the Eastern net. Brouwer made yet another diving save at the 11:30 mark, as she did her part to keep the Eagles in the lead.
Eastern’s defensive standouts controlled the Warriors for most of the match. Western went over 50 minutes without scoring through most of the first half and almost all of the second half, as Kennadie Ross, Grace Dobson, Brianne Aldridge, Emily Krans, Kenley Newcomer, Lauren Hampton, and others held the Warrior attackers mostly away from the EAHS net.
Western continued their desperate efforts to force the pace and tie the match up in the closing minutes until finally, with just 3:43 left on the regulation clock, Carlton banged a shot off a corner kick past Brouwer and into the net. The goal tied the match at 2-2, and forced overtime.
It was the second corner kick goal the Eagles allowed to Western - a clear point of emphasis for the Eagles defensively heading into Friday’s match at East Chapel Hill.
The teams played through two 10-minute overtime periods in a defensive stalemate, as neither team was able to get in quality position for a game-winning goal. The Eagles and Warriors then fought through two 5-minute “sudden death” periods, in which a goal at any point by either team would have ended the match.
Following the 30 minutes of overtimes, Eastern and Western broke the tie with a shootout - the second time this spring that the Eagles and Warriors had to settle a match with penalty kicks at Mebane’s Fred Brady Stadium.
This time, however, the stakes were much higher. To the winner, a berth in the second round of the state playoffs Friday night in Chapel Hill against No. 6 seed East Chapel Hill.
To the loser, a sense that their season had ended way too soon.
It certainly didn’t feel like a first round state playoff game, as the longtime inter-county foes created an atmosphere that felt more like a state quarterfinal or state semifinal match.
Both schools were passionately into the action, as Western Alamance traveled a solid crowd of spectators over to Mebane for the contest. During the shootout that was to come, the officials had to remove crowds that had gathered on both sides of the fences surrounding the field, as both schools’ crowds sought an edge by preparing to yell and scream at the penalty kickers.
As they did in regulation, Western Alamance drew first blood in the shootout, as Lydia Stucker fired a shot right as Brouwer went left. Western goalkeeper Kacy Floyd made a save of Megan Banko’s initial EAHS shot, and the Warriors led 1-0.
Brouwer redeemed herself moments later, as she made a stellar diving deflection going to her left of Cassidy White’s penalty kick - Western’s second of the shootout. Lauren Hampton then fired a high shot over Floyd’s head and into the back of the net, tying the shootout 1-1.
Eastern took the lead in the third round of the shootout, as Emma Watson’s shot bounced high off the top bar for Western Alamance, and Sarah Widderich drilled a hard shot into the left corner of the goal for the Eagles, making the count 2-1.
Both teams connected in the fourth penalty kick round, as Western Alamance’s Maddie Hernandez scored on a shot to the left-hand side of the goal, and Eastern’s Kennadie Ross nailed a hard shot that hit Floyd’s hands, but bounced through them and past the line.
In the fateful fifth round, Eastern had two chances to win. But Carlton came through huge for the Warriors, hitting a shot that bounced off the left bottom pipe and into the net. Had Carlton missed, the match would have been over.
Nonetheless, with the score tied 4-4, Emilyn Krans had a chance to put the match away as she set up for Eastern’s fifth penalty kick. Krans hit a hard ground shot towards the right, but Floyd managed to save it to force “sudden death” penalty kicks, in which the two squads rotated a single player back and forth until one team scores and one team misses.
The drama simply couldn’t get any higher as Western Alamance’s Emily Brinson set her her ball to shoot at Anneke Brouwer. But with Eastern’s season literally hanging in the balance, Brouwer came through with a pair of heroic saves.
First, Brouwer made a diving deflection, going to her left, of Brinson’s line drive. Grace Dobson had another chance to end it for the Eagles, but her kick sailed just a couple feet high.
In the seventh penalty kick of the shootout, Brouwer went again to her left to make a second straight diving deflection - this one of a shot by Western Alamance’s Emery Conklin.
It was up to Eastern freshman Macy James, who had yet another chance to the Eagles to put it away.
Thankfully for EAHS, this time it worked out, as James kicked a shot to the right that confused Floyd and went by her.
James’ goal set off a jubilant celebration on the field, as Eastern’s players came together for a shouting, jumping team huddle.
It was the celebration of the hardest-fought win of the season for the Eagles - and one that they can only hope can help them as they prepare to travel to East Chapel Hill, who comes in to the second round matchup with an overall record of 15-2-2. The Wildcats went 13-1 to win the Big 8 Conference regular season championship.
While the Eagles naturally want to go over to Chapel Hill and put off an upset to advance to the third round, it will be difficult to match the emotional high of this final showdown with Western Alamance.