PILOT MOUNTAIN — Without a doubt, East Surry is a better soccer team when Mary Jo Lowe and Laura Ruiz are on the field.
With that said, the Lady Cardinals aren’t bad without them, either.
The 11th seed in the NCHSAA 1-A East Region found itself in a dogfight with visiting Highland Tech on Tuesday evening. The underdog Lady Rams had actually scored first in the first-round playoff meeting between the two schools, and midway through the second half, East Surry was clinging to a 2-1 lead when Lowe was helped off the field with a severe cramp in her leg following a collision with a Highland midfielder. Not long afterward, Ruiz also had to come out of the match with cramps in both of her legs.
Anyone who’s ever seen those two play knows that they were too tough to let leg cramps keep them off the field for good. They both eventually returned, but for about 10 minutes, Highland Tech had a free shot at a Lady Cardinal team without two of its best players.
It didn’t do them any good.
“We asked a lot of the girls today,” said East Surry head coach Bill Hart. “We had a lot of people playing out of position, and they all stepped up and played well. We were really focused tonight. We were down early, but we didn’t let that get us down.”
During the time when Lowe and Ruiz weren’t available, there was little drop-off in East Surry’s play. The Lady Cardinals became used to playing short-handed when the team was plagued with injuries early in the season, and now that experience paid off. Even without Lowe on the field, East Surry strikers MiKayla Custer and Elyssa Jones managed to keep the ball on the Highland end of the field most of the time, and the Lady Cardinals also held the fort on defense even without Ruiz.
In fact, the clinching goal came with both players standing on the sideline waiting for the referee to allow them to come back in. With 14:30 remaining, Jones got a basically free run down the middle of the field against a Lady Ram defense that was becoming noticeably leg-weary. She finally took her shot from about 15 yards out, getting enough on the kick that it went through the hands of Highland keeper Madelyn Daggerheart for a 3-1 East Surry lead.
“Elyssa had a tremendous individual effort to get that goal there,” said Hart. “That really put us over the top.”
Highland (8-13) made one more run at the Lady Cardinals with about 10 minutes left. At the 10:35 mark, Ruiz was called for a handball in the goal box and a penalty kick was awarded to the Lady Rams. Highland’s Alexis Farbo lined up her shot and blasted it toward the goal, but East Surry’s Maggie Collins won the one-on-on battle and swatted the shot away. The ball rebounded to her right and another Highland player took a shot, but hers was wide of the net and the Lady Cardinals escaped the danger with a goal kick.
The Lady Rams, knowing it was do or die for them, kept the pressure on and got one more good shot on Collins at the 9:48 mark, but she was again up to the task and punted the ball to the midfield. From there, East Surry regained control of the match and Highland Tech never mounted another serious threat. Hart even felt comfortable enough with his team’s position that he removed several of the starters with under four minutes to play.
East Surry (11-9-1) started off slowly, and Highland took a 1-0 lead early in the match. It wasn’t until late in the 13th minute that the Lady Cardinals were able to get the equalizer, when the Rams were whistled for a foul in the box. Hart tabbed Ruiz to take the penalty kick, which she boomed past Daggerheart to tie the match. From there, East Surry began to get the better of play for long stretches, but neither team could capitalize on an opportunity. The teams went to the break deadlocked at 1-1.
The Lady Cardinals had been working on improving their play in the first five minutes of halves, and the improved focus was evident immediately after the break. With East on the attack, a Highland defended upended a Lady Cardinal forward near the visitors’ sideline almost 40 yards from the goal. The whistle blew, and East Surry received a free kick. Hart sent Ruiz to take it, and the junior sent a powerful shot toward the net. Most of the Highland players seemed to think that Ruiz had taken direct aim at the goal, but she hadn’t. Instead, the ball settled about four yards in front of the net, near the right post. Lowe beat her marker and headed it in to give East Surry its first lead with 37:44 to play.
“We really wanted to focus on coming out intense in the first five and last five minutes of each half,” said Hart. “In the past, we’ve struggled with our focus at the start and finish of halves, and I think our focus showed in getting that goal early in the second half.”
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.