Shock and sadness swept over the soccer field Tuesday night following the District 6AAA semifinals.
The Lady Pioneers, who looked primed for a postseason run, saw their season end abruptly when Cookeville came in and beat Warren County 2-0 in Tuesday’s win-or-go-home matchup.
“Cookeville did an extremely good job of taking it to us right off the bat. They put us on the defensive right away and we never really responded,” said Lady Pioneer coach Todd Willmore, who guided his team to a 10-win season. “It felt like we were playing catch up most of the night and got into panic mode, doing things that weren’t typical of what we’ve done.
“I know it’s disheartening for the girls. I felt like we were the better team overall, but Cookeville’s coach said it was the best they’ve played all year. We got their best, but we didn’t play our best. They just outplayed us.”
Audrey Birdwell and Avery Brown each scored in the first half for the Lady Cavaliers, who had previously lost to Warren County 3-0 in the regular season before bouncing back in the pivotal postseason matchup.
“We possessed well, we attacked well and we’re a completely different team than we were at the beginning of the season,” Cookeville coach Lauren Metts told the Herald Citizen following the game. “Sometimes it’s hard for our girls to see how much we’ve improved, going from practice to practice and playing so many different teams. Losing 3-0 during the regular season and beating them 2-0 is huge and helps them gauge where we’re at.”
The Lady Cavaliers seemed to be the aggressor all night, winning most 50-50 battles and getting the first touch on most balls in the air. Offensively, Cookeville was able to get on the board in the 18th minute by blazing past the Lady Pioneer defense.
Birdwell was able to get behind the defense for a 1-on-1 shot against Lady Pioneer keeper MaKenna Mason, who had little chance of stopping the sharp shot to the opposite post.
Warren County was caught on its heels again right before halftime.
Brown was able to gain the edge on the Lady Pioneers and get an opening that made it 2-0 with just three minutes left in the first half.
The Lady Pioneers didn’t get a clean look on goal until midway through the second half, when freshman Bekah Jackson took two free kicks from just outside the 18-yard box. Both were stopped by Cookeville keeper Kylie Spear.
Jaden Smartt just missed connecting with Sam Ramsey on a cross with 18 minutes to go, but Spear slid in front of a racing Ramsey just before the Lady Pioneers were able to slice the Cookeville lead.
Warren County got a late corner, but the ball was knocked around in front of the goal before being cleared out of the Cookeville zone.
The Lady Cavaliers were able to keep Jackson, the District freshman of the year, and District 6AAA MVP Katie Toney in check late, with Metts often yelling for her team to keep a body on Toney the entire second half.
It was a strategy Cookeville could employ after building a two-goal lead.
“About 10 minutes into the second half, they started dropping 10 and it made it difficult to get good looks,” said Willmore. “We went to a different formation to put Katie and Bekah both up top. It gave us some opportunities, but we tried to play the ball over the top and through and their keeper was playing really high and was there.”
In the final minute, a small scuffle broke out at midfield between members of each team. Both players were assessed yellow cards before the final whistle.
Emotions were flowing after the loss, which signaled the end of the careers of six seniors. It was tough for Willmore to say goodbye to this year’s group.
“I hate it for the seniors. I thought this team had a chance to make a run if we got into region,” said Willmore. “These seniors have been good leaders for us. They’re pretty diverse and related well to our underclassmen. They’re respected and a special group. I’m going to miss them – they’re good players, but more so really good girls.”
For the players returning, Willmore was clear what they should take from the game.
“I told the underclassmen, ‘Let this sink in and sting,’” said Willmore. “I wanted them to remember what it feels like because this shouldn’t happen again.”