By Jeremy Stafford - firstname.lastname@example.org
QUICKSBURG - This season has provided Katie Bennett with plenty of reasons, it seems, to hang her head low, and few reasons to keep it from rising too high.
Bennett's Central Falcons were winless heading into Shenandoah District play, and had suffered a handful of grueling, grimy one-goal losses.
On a more personal level, Bennett hadn't scored a goal since an April 1 benefit match against Strasburg, a game which didn't count toward either team's season.
But at least Bennett had Stonewall Jackson, a rival representing one of Central's one-goal losses, a rival Bennett couldn't help but raise her head for.
"I've had a positive attitude," Bennett said. "Some games I haven't, and today, this [match] was all my mind was on."
And that pesky scoring drought? Gone.
In a 4-3 win over Stonewall Jackson on Tuesday, Bennett scored two goals and assisted on two others.
In two games' time the once smarting Bennett has scored two goals, dished out four helpers and bloomed a smile too long in the making - a welcome change to the jostling of jumbled nerves she felt prior to, and for the better part of, Tuesday's match.
Her thoughts centered on Stonewall Jackson, her heart thumped with anticipation, and her teammates spoke of their buzzing nerves.
"This is a really big game for us," Central forward Katie Philpott said. "We really wanted to win this, and it was a big statement because Stonewall is high up in the rankings, and we're really not, so it was really important for team morale and for É playoffs."
Specifically, with the win, Central (4-8-1, 4-5 Shenandoah) now sits just behind Stonewall Jackson (5-8-1, 5-3-1 Shenandoah) in the district standings with only a match against Luray remaining in the regular season.
Philpott scored Central's other two goals, both of which represented the first two scores of the match. Bennett's two assists came off crosses to Philpott; Bennett laughed that the duo's performance was "Katie squared."
"I just told her to keep her chin up," Philpott said of Bennett's long drought, "and we really worked together well this game."
In fact, as far as offense is concerned, everything worked for both Central and Stonewall Jackson, at least for 40 minutes.
The first half saw seven scored goals - none were scored in the second half - and 20 total shots. Stonewall Jackson keeper Rhea Jett had three of her six saves in the first half, and Central keeper Miranda Morris notched six of her 11 saves in the first half.
After Philpott scored twice in the opening 15 minutes, Hope Madaris and Vanessa Cardoso each scored Stonewall Jackson goals inside a five-minute span.
In the first injury time, Bennett settled a cross from Philpott inside the penalty box, drew Jett out of the goal box, then whistled a shot to the goal's left cheek.
Bennett's game-winner came more than 40 minutes before the end of the match.
"We knew they were gonna come out hungry," said Bennett, a pale flash of Central blue coloring a few wisps of her ponytail. "We brought it up and we wanted this - all our hearts were in it."
As the second half bore on, Central coach Duff Rice gradually shaped his original formation, a 4-3-3, into one more primed to defend a lead. What resulted, with Philpott dropping back from forward, was something resembling a 4-4-2, but at times saw as many as five or six girls holding the back line.
"In a county game, we knew it was going to be close no matter what," Rice said. "I was really hoping we could protect that two-goal lead - we made a couple little mistakes ... but we finally made up for it."
And there was always the sense, on both sides, that Central's two-goal lead, regardless of how quickly it came, wasn't quite enough. Stonewall Jackson has shown an uncanny ability over the season to score in bunches. And after sustaining Philpott's early barrage, and still waiting for Bennett's late barrage, the Generals' offense mustered a spree of its own.
Cardoso ended the night with one goal on four shots, and Madaris finished with two goals on eight shots.
"We knew it was a grudge match," Stonewall Jackson coach Chris Livesay said. "But it was a friendly grudge match between the two schools, because the majority of these girls grew up together and played together.
"It just goes to show just how even they both are."