With each minute, the pressure mounted and fatigue continued to take its toll. The 11 starters for the Warren County High School girls soccer team were playing their 100th straight minute without a sub, not knowing if the regional tournament semifinal match against McMinn County would ever end.
Then, just like that, it was all over.
Senior Ansley Mullican took a corner kick in the 104th minute and her classmate Morgan McCormick banged in a rebound to give the Lady Pioneers a 1-0 win and a berth into the regional final and substate.
Warren County coach Todd Willmore – who has guided the Lady Pioneers to four straight regional tournaments and back-to-back trips to the regional finals – was ecstatic when the game-winning goal sailed into the net.
“It was truly awesome and a thing of beauty,” said Willmore. “Ansley took a corner and the ball bounced around a couple of times before Morgan cleaned it up. She played it across the keeper’s face into the right side of the goal.”
The win was met with euphoric reactions from the exhausted Lady Pioneer squad. Mullican, the team’s leading scorer, was able to set up the final goal and she got a good view of the winning score.
“I played a corner - not very high and not really that far. I just hit it between the goalie and Morgan. The ball moved around the box for a second then Morgan hit it in,” said Mullican. “We went crazy after that.”
The game-winning goal was the ultimate reward for the ironman effort the 11 players who took the field for the Lady Pioneers gave against McMinn County. Due to illness and other commitments, coach Willmore only had 11 players on hand that were ready for the regional semifinal game.
Coach Willmore shifted players around to fit a new defensive scheme added this week in hopes of slowing down the Lady Cherokees. The plan worked wonders as McMinn County was unable to tally a goal – a feat Willmore credited to his team’s effort throughout the match.
“We scrapped our traditional formation and had a more defensive mindset for McMinn County, which went against our philosophy,” said Willmore. “However, the girls bought in completely and sold out all night with unbelievable effort.”
From the opening whistle, tension seemed to start building.
Neither team could capitalize on their limited opportunities – whether it was a Lady Cherokee weaving into the Warren County defense or the few looks McCormick or Mullican got on the McMinn County goal.
The game went to halftime with no score and the second half would go the same way.
The Lady Pioneer defense, with the combined efforts of Taylor Mullican, Lesley Sweeton, Rylee Hilliard, Lindsay Cox, Madison Mason, Alana Ortiz, Natalie Reed, Saydee Winfree and senior keeper Jessie Newby, was not going to let the Lady Cherokees take the lead.
Warren County held McMinn County scoreless in the second half as well, sending the game to the first of three overtimes.
The first two overtimes were 10 minutes and neither team could find the net. Warren County fans who made the two-hour trip to the regional semifinals held their breath every time the Lady Cherokees made a run, then rose to their feet in unison each moment it looked like the Lady Pioneers would win.
The rise and fall would last until the third overtime, when the Lady Pioneers’ duo of all-state players combined to end the game.
Afterward, the team celebrated and players rehashed the amazing effort it took the win. Newby, who recorded her fifth shutout this season in goal, believed it was the team’s willingness to work together that made the difference.
“The defense really stepped up. It wasn’t just the formation, but the effort of the players. We played as a team and everybody on the field was helping defend. It was great,” said Newby.
Coach Willmore echoed Newby’s sentiments about the Lady Pioneers’ team-first approach during the victory.
“The girls made an effort to do some things they have not been asked to do before for the betterment of the team,” said Willmore. “They were rewarded for their efforts and I feel as if the girls had an extreme sense of gratification after the win.”
The Lady Pioneers advanced to the regional final, which was played Thursday night at Cookeville. Results were unavailable at press time.
For the latest information on the Lady Pioneers’ run toward the state tournament, visit www.southernstandard.com or check the Standard’s twitter page @SStandardSports.