Cougars clip Thunder in defensive duel
OVERLAND PARK — The challenge facing the Shawnee Mission Northwest girls soccer team was twofold.
First, the Cougars needed to stand tall against two-time defending Class 5-1A state champion St. James Academy, and second, contain one of the state’s most versatile forwards in Bethany Smith.
Northwest accomplished both as it battled to a 1-0 victory Friday night at Shawnee Mission South District Stadium.
“That’s the first time we’ve beaten St. James,” SMNW coach Todd Boren said. “The first few years we played them it was a tight game like this, 1-0, but they blew us out last year. For us to come back and get this game, I think it should be a big confidence booster for (the girls). That’s really the best we’ve played the last few games.”
Northwest opened the season with four straight victories and outscored its opponents 10-1 during that stretch, but recent bumps in the road against Shawnee Mission West and Lawrence Free State shook the team’s confidence a bit after the Cougars fell behind early.
Friday’s first half was a back-and-forth affair with each team creating multiple dangerous scoring opportunities, but each time the defense rose up to the challenge.
Northwest placed a shot on goal off of a corner kick in the opening minute. Moments later, St. James countered with a beautiful combination from Elizabeth Enna to Nicole Mitchell to Bethany Smith that ended with a shot on goal that SMNW goalkeeper Jenni Pinkleman blocked.
More opportunities followed suit for both teams. St. James frequently looked for Smith — one of the area’s top goal-scorers the past two years — to create on the offensive end, but she was constantly hounded by Northwest’s Jennifer Howell, Sarah Schmidt, Cara Lightle and Haylee Allen.
“I’m really proud of them,” Boren said. “That’s the best our back line has played in a couple games.”
The Cougars finally broke through in the 31st minute. After a Lightle corner kick found Mollie Slechta for a header that was knocked out of bounds by St. James keeper Taylor Whyte, Lightle lined up for another corner kick. This time it sailed into the box, bounced off of a St. James player and found its way into the net for a goal and a 1-0 Northwest lead.
“Our goalie and defender kind of overran a corner kick, and when good teams play each other it’s usually a mistake that’s the difference,” Thunder coach Rick Enna said.
Boren said the goal gave his team a boost of confidence that carried it for the rest of the game.
“The early goal was huge. For us to go up 1-0 against an opponent like this, that’s a momentum changer and gives you confidence going into the second half,” he said. “The last couple games the other team’s been the first one to score and I think that’s been a little bit demoralizing for us, so I think that was a real energy boost for us going into the second half.”
St. James created the bulk of the scoring opportunities during the second half, but many of them were from a distance to get past the stout Cougar defense. A number of them nearly found the back of the net, however, as second-half SMNW goalkeeper Chloe Weishaar made numerous acrobatic saves and pushed a few shots over the crossbar.
St. James’ Jordan Marquess fired a shot that Weishaar pushed off the crossbar in the 58th minute. Smith tracked down a ball on the left end line, cut across the middle of the box and unleashed a shot that Weishaar punched high in the 67th minute. She then made a diving save near the far post to stop a shot by Smith in the 74th minute.
“I think we had maybe 80 percent of the possession in the second half,” Enna said. “We were all over the goal, and they just did a tremendous job defensively. (The Cougars) were very well disciplined, they stayed on their marks and their goalie just played out of her mind. We had balls hitting the post and she was knocking balls over the crossbar, so I was just very impressed with how well organized they were.”
Marquess, Faith Bila and Kayla Nguyen all fired shots for St. James in the final 95 seconds, but they were all denied and the Cougars secured the victory.
“It was a fun game,” Enna said. “There were a lot of opportunities, there were a lot of goal-saving plays, there were a lot of creative things that happened; it was a very entertaining game. Someone’s got to lose, and (the Cougars) were very deserving in the win.”
Northwest improved to 6-2 with the victory while St. James fell to 2-7.
The Cougars next play at 6:15 p.m. Tuesday at Washburn Rural in Topeka. St. James travels Friday to Burlington, Iowa, for the Tournament of Champions. The tournament will include 32 teams from Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, including St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Teresa’s (Mo.) Academy. St. James opens play against Althoff Catholic out of Belleville, Ill.