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A rubber band can only stretch so far before it breaks.
In the case of the Hunt High varsity girls soccer team, the elasticity of its defense was tested to the utmost Friday night by Pittsboro Northwood in the second round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A playoffs.
With 10 shutouts to their name this season, the Lady Warriors seized a 1-0 lead in the 19th minute on a chip-and-charge goal by sophomore Kristen Armstrong. But Northwood, in a manner that has been an uncommon sight against Hunt’s defense, responded with possession and sustained pressure against senior goalkeeper Rachel Cox and the Hunt defensive third.
Northwood equalized before halftime, and a 52nd-minute goal by Helena Hysong stood as the game winner as Hunt was held to just six total shots in a 2-1 loss that ended its season.
Hunt, Big East champion and the No. 3 seed in the 32-team East region, concluded with a 14-3 record. Northwood, the No. 19 seed which finished tied for third in the Big 8 Conference, improved to 14-7-1 in reaching the third round.
“They have some great soccer players,” Hunt head coach Richard Frazier said of Northwood. “I think that has a lot to do with it. They’ve got a lot of club players that play on the team with a lot of creativity, and they’ve definitely got some college players on that team. Overall, I still thought that we had more shots on goal than they did. Unfortunately, they only got two in and we only got one in. But I don’t think they did anything to confuse our defense, they just made two really good soccer plays. We had a couple of good saves, but most of the time, we held them at bay.”
In actuality, the Chargers held a 10-2 advantage in shots on frame. Hunt’s only first-half tally came on well-executed transition, where Armstrong collected the ball down the far sideline and earned a 1 v. 1 against Northwood keeper Ella Strayer. Strayer came well off her line to defend, giving Armstrong plenty of room for a chip over the keeper and the early Hunt lead.
But for the Lady Warriors, that was the exception, rather than the rule. The Chargers stayed committed to keeping the ball wide and not breaking prematurely into the middle of the field with diagonal runs. The result often left reams of space for Northwood to utilize in the middle, putting Cox under unaccustomed pressure.
A bounding ball in the box allowed Northwood to equalize before halftime, with Juliana Hubbard squaring the ball up off the left side and sending it past Cox in the 34th. Barely two minutes later, Madeline Conte generated a dangerous opportunity by dribbling straight up the heart of Hunt’s central defense. Only a point-blank save from Cox kept the scoreline level before the half.
“Our whole strategy is to keep the ball wide, which keeps their defense spread out,” Northwood head coach David Holub said. “A lot of teams try to right go down the middle. Corners play to the corners, and then we’ll attack the center after we get them spread out. And it just worked in our favor today. They’re a great team. That’s the toughest team we’ve played all year.”
The game winner for Northwood came in the 52nd, with Hubbard dribbling into Hunt territory and sending a through ball to Hysong. She slotted in past Cox for the final margin.
Hunt, which drew six corner kicks, had a tantalizing chance off a set piece with 16:10 to go. But in a scrum of jerseys inside the box, the ball barely rolled wide of the post and out of play.
As Frazier called for numbers to be pushed forward with around eight minutes remaining, the Lady Warriors found themselves unable to get a shot off. A harried Hunt drew its sixth and final corner as the seconds ticked away, but it was unable to return the ball to play as full time was signaled.
Hunt careers came to a close for Sophia Fox, Cox, McKenzie Hinnant, Camille Ruiz, Miriam Herrera and Sarah Mercer, the latter of which was injured and had to come off with just under six minutes to go.
“I find it very disappointing,” Cox said. “I love this team, it was an honor to play with them and some of the people I’m leaving this year. So I won’t be playing with some of my favorite people.”
Frazier vowed to improve his team’s nonconference schedule next season to prepare for latter-round styles of play.
“We don’t draw from quite the soccer pool as some of the Chapel Hill and Raleigh schools,” he said. “I think that what we’re doing here in Wilson, especially at Hunt High School, is getting the best we can out of our soccer players. Some have played more soccer than others, but athletically, I think we can compete with these teams and we’re doing everything we can to create a soccer environment that they can excel in.”