STRASBURG — Minutes after Tuesday night’s match against Clarke County, Strasburg girls soccer coach Kayla Allen was trying to explain how things have suddenly started falling in place for the Rams. After thinking for a moment, she shrugged and with a laugh replied, “magic.”
Allen was joking, of course, but the Rams’ recent run of success must certainly feel a bit magical for a program learning how to win.
Strasburg’s 1-0 victory over the Eagles at home was its third straight shutout win, one that moved the Rams to an even 3-3 in Bull Run District play after dropping their first three contests in league play. It also improved the Rams’ overall record to 5-6-1, meaning that in a span of 12 matches in 2019, they’ve matched their entire win total from the previous four seasons combined.
The Rams’ winning streak — which includes a pair of 2-0 district wins over Rappahannock County and Central — has come on the heels of a four-game skid that prompted Allen to crank up the intensity when things started turning very bleak.
“I pushed them and practices were not fun,” Allen said after Tuesday’s win. “Practices were hard because I knew they had it in them, and the Rapp win was solid. And then Central, rivalries always bring the best (out) of us. We hadn’t beaten Central as a varsity program in memorable years. It’s always been close but they’ve always ended up with the W. Beating them was really important, and going into this game our mentality was right. It was ‘OK, we can do this. We can win. We can get there.’”
The win over Clarke County, which had beaten Strasburg 1-0 in the teams’ first meeting on April 11 and entered the match in second place behind George Mason in the Bull Run District race, showed just how much the Rams have grown from a confidence standpoint in recent weeks.
In fact, Strasburg junior goalkeeper Sam Simpson said the biggest difference in Tuesday’s match and the first meeting with the Eagles was the simple fact that the Rams entered the rematch coming off a pair of wins.
When the Rams traveled to Berryville for the first run-in with Clarke, they did so having lost two straight matches to a previously winless Warren County squad and George Mason. After the loss to Clarke County, Strasburg was thumped by Madison County, 6-1.
At that point, Allen said, the Rams were banged up, “crushed and demoralized,” and things needed to change if they hoped to salvage their season.
“We were just down about ourselves,” Rams freshman Morgan Mrizek said, “but (Allen) brought us up because she made us push harder and harder. We just really got into it and it hasn’t stopped.”
Mrizek’s goal with three minutes left in the first half was the difference on Tuesday night. After the Rams missed on their first 10 shots of the night, freshman defender Jenna Bowman sent a long pass ahead that Mrizek, who had gotten past Clarke County’s defense, tracked down to set up a one-on-one chance that she won against Eagles freshman keeper Emma Rogers.
It was Mrizek’s first varsity goal.
“We were more confident,” Mrizek said of the Rams exacting revenge in the rematch. “We worked in practice on our shots and everything. We kept going and fighting, and our passes and our touches have been better since we played them (the first time). We keep working hard, so that just helps.”
Both sides had plenty of other opportunities to put more goals on the board. Clarke County attempted 23 shots in the match, while Strasburg took 21, and the Eagles had several near-misses in a stretch in the second half during which Allen said Clarke County was “running the show.”
“Tonight I think a lot of individuals stepped up and they did their job. (Abigail) Davis and Debra Dillman on the back line, I mean I feel like they were on a mission where it was ‘we’re not letting anybody in and nothing’s coming in this goal.’ It’s the mentality, like it’s just, we shifted and it’s fantastic to see because they’re playing the ball that we can play,” Allen said.
“It easily could’ve gone either way, and a lot of times in the past we put ourselves in a situation where when it can go either way, we gave it up instead of fighting. And tonight we fought. We fought every minute of it, and I loved it.”
In one such close call, the entire Eagles bench thought senior Keagan Bragg’s open shot from the top of the penalty area with 17:30 remaining found the back of the net when instead the ball skipped just wide of the goal. In another, Simpson blocked a shot on a short-hop with her shins, only to have the ball rebound to Eagles freshman Maya Marasco, forcing Simpson to scramble to make another stop.
Simpson had 12 saves on the night to preserve the Rams’ third straight shutout.
“I was motivated because they beat us 1-0 last time. I wasn’t gonna let them score,” Simpson said. “(Bragg’s) scary, but I wasn’t gonna let her get in.”
Strasburg’s collective defensive effort in recent matches has been made even more impressive due to the lineup shuffle the Rams have undertaken. Senior defender Kiana Carter is out with a concussion and did not play Tuesday, and junior Karly Colcombe moved up from the back line into the midfield for the first time this season against the Eagles.
“(We’ve) definitely been switching better with marks,” Simpson said of the defense’s performance during the win streak. “It’s a little scary we don’t have Kiana, we didn’t have Karly back there tonight. But having (Davis and Dillman) back there, who talk well, definitely helps us out. They know how to work the ball up the field instead of just kicking it out, so I think that helps us a lot.”
Strasburg, which is in fourth place in the Bull Run District and is just a game back of second place, returns to action on Friday at George Mason.
“We know that we’re very capable of placing ourselves in a nice position in the district,” Allen said. “George Mason sits undefeated at number one and they’re always sort of the goal. If we can beat George Mason, then we sit pretty. But we know beating Clarke here was good. We know we can be competitive and win against the other teams, even Madison. We were missing some key players in that game and I think that the second time it’ll go differently. And we know, we’ve talked about the wins that we need to get and the placement that we need to have in order to go on to regionals for the first time.”