PEACHTREE CITY — After watching his team scratch, claw and fight within a hair's breadth of history on Tuesday Anel Lilic knew there was little he could say to assuage the emotions of the Flowery Branch girls soccer players.
Yet even amidst the disapppointment there was plenty of reason for optmism following a 3-2 overtime loss to McIntosh in the Class 5A semifinals in Peachtree City.
"I'm so proud of these girls; they played a great program toe-to-toe, and it could have gone either way," Lilic said. "These girls have set a standard and expectations to play up to.
"There's nothing I could say to make them feel better, but we'll be back, and we'll be better."
A Lady Falcons line-up that will graduate just two starters pushed the Lady Chiefs to the brink, taking a first half lead before responding to a late deficit to send the contest into overtime. Caroline Wysocki and freshman Larsyn Reid provided the goals for the Branch (21-1) -- the first time the Lady Chiefs had surrendered a score in the postseason.
Yet McIntosh -- 11 times state champions -- displayed plenty of its own grit and determination, using two goals from Tariah Miller, including the winner in overtime, to make the difference and advance to Friday's title game.
"In the second half I feel like we created more opportunities than they did, and our girls never gave up," Lilic said. "We continued to believe in what we did all season, and we really played well today after we settled into the game."
The showdown needed some time to heat up, as the two teams battled it out in midfield over the first 15 minutes, neither attack able to carry a consistent threat forward. Yet the Lady Chiefs carried most of the possession and forced the Lady Falcons' defense to stay alert -- including in the 11th minute when Branch goalkeeper Hannah Pimentel charged to smother a pass at the feet of Miller.
No sooner had McIntosh grown comfortable, however, than the Lady Falcons stunned the hosts.
A series of throw-ins moved Flowery Branch deep into Lady Chiefs territory. Unable to clear the danger, McIntosh watched as Wysocki picked up a loose ball and provided a trademark goal for the visitors, as she cut back and lofted a 30-yard strike over Stephanie Yi and into the net with 15:39 remaining in the half.
The goal sparked the contest to life and, ultimately, provoked a response from the Lady Chiefs.
Miller again provided the danger, this time capitalizing on a mis-hit shot from teammate Lauryn Phillips to turn the ball into the Lady Falcons net, leveling the score at 1-1 with 7:08 left before the interval.
McIntosh was not finished, however, and Macy Simon pounced on a loose Branch goal kick just moments later to give the Lady Chiefs a 2-1 advantage, as the sophomore took control, charged into the Lady Falcons penalty area and curled a 12-yard shot past a stranded Pimentel.
The Branch worked to respond and carried the threat forward with another long-range effort from Wysocki, but this one just cleared the bar, as they entered the half trailing.
The Lady Falcons committed to finding their own equalizer in the second half, however, and Wysocki again scared McIntosh -- but could only blast her 14-yard effort over the crossbar after McKenzie Kent cradled a cross into her path five minutes into the restart.
That determination also meant the Lady Falcons' left space in front of their own defense, and the Lady Chiefs took advantage -- especially down the left flank, as Phillips and Hannah Ellison took turns charging at the Branch backline. Ellison's cross to Skylar Kohane should have produced another goal, but the midfielder powered her header wide of the frame with 19 minutes remaining.
The game opened up more by the minute, however, and Wysocki just missed an equalizer moments later, running on to a long through ball only to drag her angled shot inches wide.
The Lady Falcons refused to give up, however, running ceaselessly in attack -- and with just 4:17 remaining they earned their reward.
Taking control 25 yards from goal, Anna Grady looked up and released Reid on a perfect through pass into the McIntosh penalty area, and the freshman made no mistake, slamming her angled shot past Yi to knot the score at 2-2.
McIntosh missed two late chances to avoid overtime, as Simon and Phillips each fired off target inside the Lady Falcons penalty area. But even after suffering the late gut punch, McIntosh displayed the mental strength to respond.
Miller, who proved a thorn in Branch's side throughout, provided the killer touch, gathering a bouncing ball in the Branch penalty area, shielding off one defender before rolling a shot past Piementel while falling over for a 3-2 lead with 2:24 remaining in the second overtime.
"It was an incredible season, and, again, I'm so proud of these girls," Lilic said.