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Thursday July 7th, 2022 12:07AM

(VIDEO) Playoff soccer: Branch girls make semifinal history in penalty shootout win over Starr's Mill

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FLOWERY BRANCH — The hopes of an entire program and potential history in the making could have so easily overwhelmed Kelsey Mathis on Friday.

Instead the Flowery Branch girls goalkeeper took a deep breath, dove to her left and turned that pontential into reality.

The Lady Falcons senior stopped two penalties in a Class AAAAA quarterfinal shootout with Starr's Mill -- including the clincher in sudden-death -- to lift the Branch girls to their first ever state semifinal berth.

"I was trying not to think of anything, just clear my mind, take a breath and focus," Mathis said. "Then when it came time to make a stop I was just thinking, 'get to the ball; get to the ball.' "

Mathis did just that, saving the first and last spot kicks she faced in a tension-laced shootout after the Lady Falcons and Panthers battled to a 1-1 draw through regulation and overtime. The shootout proved a perfect match for open play, with the Branch and Starr's Mill unable to decide a winner through the best-of-five format, triggering sudden death -- and even that went two rounds. Callie Huff buried the seventh penalty taken for the Lady Falcons, setting up the decisive showdown between the Lady Panthers' Sky Dedrick and Mathis. And the Branch keeper held her nerve, blocking Dedrick's shot to seal a Final Four appearance.

The Lady Falcons (13-6-1) will play host to McIntosh in the next round after winning a coin toss for homefield between the two No. 2 seeds -- kickoff time to be announced.

"I'm just so stinking proud of these girls," Flowery Branch coach Katie Scali said. "For them to do this, especially these seniors, after all they've been through... This is just incredible.

"There was no pressure on us; I don't think anyone expected us to win; we were the underdogs because of where they were from and everything they've done. But these girls have fought back all season, and they did it again tonight."

Indeed, the Lady Falcons responded to a 1-0 halftime deficit thanks in large part to determination and a moment of magic from midfielder Morgan Wadsworth, as the senior whipped an unstoppable, 25-yard shot into the Lady Panthers (9-10-1) net midway through the second half.

"She's an outstanding player, and she has the best field vision of any player I've had in some time," said Scali of Wadsworth.

The goal proved just reward for a team that took turns looking for the equalizer after a stout Starr's Mill defense did it's best to mark Branch playmaker Caroline Wysocki out of the game.

"We've talked about it all year, that we're not a team with a superstar, and other players stepped up again tonight; we've been doing that all season," Scali said. 

That included Mathis and her backline, which fought for every loose ball against an opportunistic foe that played its way into the contest. The Lady Falcons had all the possession early, as Wadsworth, Wysocki, Meghan Hansen and Halie Windish took turns probing a packed Lady Panthers defense. Yet there was precious little space to operate, as the visitors settled in and began to find their own offensive rhythm with the game moving out of its opening exchanges.

Playing for the counter-attack on a slick pitch paid dividends for Starr's Mill when, with just over 28 minutes left in the first half, Makira Walton laced a through-ball for Merritt Parker that skidded off the turf just in front of a Branch defender and right into Parker's path. The sophomore forward made no mistake, cutting the ball back before unleashing a 15-yard blast into the Lady Falcons goal for a 1-0 lead.

The goal triggered a fierce midfield battle, as Starr's Mill came out of its shell in search of a bigger lead -- though it had to do so wthout the efforts of Walton, who went down after a challenge and was forced from the game with 22:59 left in the half.

Meanwhile, the Lady Falcons finally found some space in the Lady Panthers backline and Allyson Lusco so nearly made the visitors pay after Wysocki fought her way down the right and centered for the midfielder. But Lusco could only smack her 12-yard shot off the Starr's Mill crossbar with 17 minutes left in the half.

The Lady Panthers maintained their advantage into the interval and came out determined to increase it, and Branch goalkeeper Kelsey Mathis had to be alert to snuff out two Starr's Mill shots just after the restart -- the second coming after the Lady Panthers' Ansley Peurifoy stole possession and stormed down the right flank before shooting from 14 yards.

Despite the early pressure, the Lady Falcons worked their way back into the contest, pressing down the wings and looking to win crosses. And while the Branch did not score directly off a cross, it was their flank play that eventually yielded the equalizer, as a ball into the middle caused some panic in the Lady Panthers defense and allowed Morgan Wadsworth to gather a loose ball 25 yards from goal.

The strike itself was all Wadsworth, however, as the senior midfielder shifted the ball to her left foot and curled an inch-perfect effort into the upper left corner of the Lady Panthers goal, knotting the score at 1-1 with 22:20 remaining in the contest.

Unlike the first half, the second half goal triggered a frantic finish, as each team took turns steaming forward in search of the winner. 

Wysocki and Lusco so nearly combined on Wysocki's sprint down the right, but her cross with 13 minutes remaining just eluded Lusco's head. Starr's Mill had its chance two minutes later, meanwhile, but the Lady Panthers botched Parker's steal and center as Sky Dedrick and Peruifoy collided at the crucial moment, allowing the Lady Falcons to clear.

Callie Huff gave it one more shot for the Lady Falcons, charging into the Lady Panthers penalty area down the left flank, but Starr's Mill keeper Spencer Dawson reacted well to smother her 14-yard drive, ensuring the game drifted into overtime -- which also produced no decisive moment and brought the game to penalties.

Wysocki, Glorismel Chavez, Wadsworth, Meghan Hansen, Lusco and Huff each buried spot kicks for the Branch, but Ashton Nowicki, Parker, Peurifoy, Rachel Davison and Chloe Spradlin also converted for Starr's Mill to keep spectators riveted until Mathis' heroics touched off wild celebrations for the Lady Falcons. 

"Kelsey if nothing is bold; I told the girls before the shootout that penalties don't decide the best team; it's just how they have to end these games sometimes -- they feel enough pressure as it is," Scali said.

Forget the pressure; bring on the history.

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