HS Girls Soccer: Late goal lifts The Woodlands past Oak Ridge in thrilling district opener

By: JD Hurd II
| Published 01/22/2020

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THE WOODLANDS, TX -- District 15-6A is always a tough district to win in. It’ll be no different this year out on the soccer pitch as the district opened up with great games across the board. Over at The Woodlands High School, the Lady Highlanders kicked off the 2020 district season with a hard-fought, physical battle with the Oak Ridge War Eagles. This five-goal thriller saw the Highlanders take a two-goal lead, the Ridge battle back to tie the game, before Gracie Britten’s goal in the final minutes gave The Woodlands a 3-2 win.

The Woodlands came out with the plan to put Oak Ridge under constant pressure in the opening minutes of the game. The Lady War Eagles chose to bunker behind the ball to absorb the relentless attack, and for the most part, dealt with the pressure pretty well. For the first 20-plus minutes, Oak Ridge defenders found ways to cancel those threatening final passes, and when shots did get put on goal, Valeria Vargas did well to keep get game level at 0. However, The Woodlands is very dangerous on the ball and it would only be a matter of time before the Highlanders hit the back of the net.

That time came with 12 minutes to go in the first half when Courtney Koehler beat her marker near the edge of the box on the right side of the field and was able to drive home the half’s lone goal with a low shot in the bottom left corner.

The first half definitely had its share of intensity and playmaking, but in the second half, everything was turned up times 10 as this district matchup really came alive. Oak Ridge played with more of an attacking style in the second half. With both teams going for goals, the match began to open up and the energy and physicality surged. With a little bit more space in the attacking third, Samone Knight ripped a long shot that tucked under the crossbar to put the Highlanders up two early in the second half.

Instead of conceding defeat in a tough environment on the road, Oak Ridge flipped the switch and took control of the game in the second half.

“At the half, we talked about our formation,” said Oak Ridge coach Miriam Morales. “We needed to keep the forwards higher because, in the first half, we were defending a little too much. I just told them we have to go all out in the second half if we want to get a result.”

The Lady War Eagles definitely responded to their coach’s message and it changed the complexion of Tuesday night’s game. With the War Eagles drawing the line of confrontation higher up the field, it allowed those forwards to shine. Now, players like Leila Anderson, Grace Hernandez, and Augustina Mansilla were the ones putting The Woodlands defenders under pressure. Their pressing paid off midway through the second half when Mansilla took control of a turnover and beat the goalkeeper at her near post to ignite the Oak Ridge comeback.

More pressure from Oak Ridge earned the War Eagles a penalty with 13 minutes to go in the game when the Highlanders defender crashed into the back of the War Eagles forward inside the penalty area. With a chance at earning at least a draw just 12 yards away, Grace Hernandez stepped and buried the penalty as cool as you like from the spot.

It seemed like these district foes would settle for a draw as the final minutes ticked away, but with under two minutes left to play, Gracie Britten used her speed to beat the backline, track down a long ball, and hit the back of the net for the game-winner.

“Both teams played with a lot of passion and grit,” said The Woodlands Head Coach Dina Graves. “[Oak Ridge] is a good team, they always play us tough. We knew it was going to be an emotional game, so we just tried to stay within what we do and things worked in our favor tonight.”

The Woodlands nearly started the 2020 district season with a 2-2 draw against Oak Ridge just as they did in 2019, but the late goal means they will start 1-0 for the fourth time in five years. Oak Ridge starts 0-1, but Coach Morales liked what she saw Tuesday night and expects to build off of that.

“I’m proud of the girls, they played hard,” said Coach Morales. “If we play with this intensity every single game, we won’t have to worry this season, but the key will be consistency.”

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