By Jerry Holsworth - firstname.lastname@example.org
STEPHENS CITY -- Thursday was a big night for Sherando's girls soccer team.
The Warriors were playing for their first regular-season Northwestern District crown since 2000, and their opponent was Handley, which had tied them earlier in the season in a hard-fought contest.
This game, however, was never close as the Warriors cruised to a 3-0 win to clinch the district title, assuring themselves a regional berth and the top seed heading into the district tournament.
"First time since 2000, and we're heading to the region for the ninth time," Sherando coach Rob Kilmer said. "But it really wasn't about revenge. It was about putting together a complete game and knocking off a very good team."
Each side had critical adjustments to make with key players out with injuries. Judges fullback Anna Robinson entered the contest with a badly sprained ankle, and was forced to leave the game after the first half. Robinson had successfully contained Warriors' leading scorer Brittini Dennis in their last game. Handley, however, got an excellent game out of her replacement.
"Anna hurt that a couple of days ago," Judges coach Luke Mason said. "We thought that she could go, but it just didn't work out. Megan Martin did a great job as her replacement."
Sherando played without the services of starting center back Morgan Sirbaugh, who was out with an eye injury. That required starting forward Mary Lauren Salvatore to move to the back line to replace her, and Jamie McCormick had to step up for her first start for Salvatore at forward.
"I've played there before, so it wasn't new to me," Salvatore said. "But playing there in such an important game made me really nervous. Handley is a very tough team, but I thought that our defense gave a great effort tonight."
McCormick demonstrated her worth by scoring the first goal of the game. With 26:40 left in the first half, Judges goalkeeper Holly Ogilvie's clearing punt didn't gain enough height to get past McCormick, who knocked it down and then raced to the goal for the score.
"When their goalkeeper tried to clear it, I just stopped it," McCormick said. "I was wide open after that. I thought that our offense put a lot of pressure on their goal the entire game and that really paid off."
Six minutes later, Warriors midfielder Krista DeCeault weaved through the Handley defense for the second Sherando goal of the game.
McCormick and DeCeault's goals defined the first half. Each side was almost equal in shots, with the Warriors having 10 to Handley's eight. But Sherando's shots were tougher on Ogilvie, forcing her to make four difficult saves.
"It's really hard to overcome a 2-0 lead against a team as good as Sherando," Mason said. "It didn't help that we were kicking our corner kicks and shots right at their goalkeeper."
Sherando packed in its defense in the second half and completely dominated play. The Judges were only able to get off two second-half shots, and neither forced Warriors goalkeeper Briana Hudnall to make a save.
With Handley pressing hard for goals in the hope of staging a second-half comeback, the Judges left their defense vulnerable to breakaways. The Warriors took advantage of that three times in the second half and turned one counterattack into the third goal of the game.
After watching a shot by McCormick bounce off the far post and another by Lauren Vangel go through Ogilvie's hands, only to watch the Handley freshman recover to make a spectacular save, Sherando got its final goal on 15-yard shot from DeCeault with 3:30 left in the game.
"They were just a better team tonight, and we made too many mistakes," Mason said. "Two of their goals came from very poor play on our part."
With the importance of the game in district competition, Sherando was just as happy with the result as Handley was disappointed.
"I am really excited about this win," DeCeault said. "I've been watching Sherando play since I was very little, and to be a part of a district championship in really awesome."