CARY — In its 19 wins this season, the Woods Charter’s women’s soccer team hadn’t seen an opponent quite like this one.
Christ the King — the West’s No. 3 seed out of Huntersville — was speedy, fierce and composed with a lock-down defense to boot.
When the Wolves (19-1-2) stepped onto the field at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary last Saturday for the NCHSAA 1A Women’s Soccer State Championship, it was as if they were looking in the mirror, staring at a carbon copy of what they’d been all season.
And in taking a page out of the Wolves’ playbook, the Crusaders (18-2) proceeded to wear the East’s top seed down until the final buzzer, coming away with a dominant 3-0 victory and their first state title in program history.
“Congratulations to them,” Graeme Stewart, the Wolves’ longtime head coach, said of his opponents after the loss. “They’re a good team, they’ve earned it. Overall, they deserved it today, but my girls were outstanding.”
The Crusaders, coming off of a 3-0 upset win over the West’s top seed in the Union Academy Cardinals (22-1) in the 1A West Regional, clearly weren’t afraid of road trips, unbeaten records or the Wolves’ high seeding.
Just like Woods Charter, Christ the King had been a defensive force throughout the postseason, allowing just one goal in its previous five games, part of a 7-1 thrashing of Highlands in the third round.
The Wolves would be the Crusaders’ latest — and final — victims.
For the first time since its season-opener against Franklin Academy, Woods Charter was not only held scoreless through the title game’s 80 minutes, but also shotless, being out-shot by Christ the King, 12-0.
It was unfamiliar territory for the Wolves, who had spent the entire postseason playing keepaway from their opponents, dominating possession at every turn.
Instead, on the biggest stage, the Crusaders kept the ball out of their possession for most of the contest. And even when they didn’t, the Wolves were unable to manufacture any tactile scoring chances thanks to Christ the King’s quickness, spacing and ball-seeking ability.
“We knew what we were coming into, we had a plan,” Stewart said, “and then we started to get into the game a little bit and it just came down to fine margins. They had a lot of possession and pressure, but to be honest with you, they didn’t create an awful lot. They did a little more in the second half when we got a bit tired, but we just needed to have a little bit more composure on the ball.”
While the Wolves’ offense was practically nonexistent for most of the game, their defense — the team’s bread and butter all season — came to play.
Jana Matthews, one of Woods Charter’s two seniors, was back for her second straight game as the Wolves’ starting goalkeeper after missing the opening few rounds, putting on a masterful performance that single-handedly kept her team in the game.
Early in the first half with both teams scoreless, Matthews found herself needing to react quickly when Crusaders senior Bella Perry had the ball right in front of the net off of a deflected crossing pass. Perry forced a shot immediately after it hit her foot, which Matthews saved with her shin as she fell to the ground, knocking it right back to Perry. Off of the rebound, Perry fired off another quick shot toward a downed Matthews, who slapped it away with her right hand to keep the game knotted at 0-0 with a double-save.
“Today, she showed what she was capable of. She’s confident, and she’s not actually a goalkeeper,” Stewart said, referencing Matthews’ transition to goalkeeper last offseason. “She was outstanding. She kept us in the game a little bit. … I’m really proud of what she did today.”
In total, Matthews racked up 9 saves on the day, acting mostly as a brick wall in net despite all of the shots that came her way.
Both defenses held strong for most of the first half, including the Wolves with their bend-but-don’t-break strategy, keeping the game 0-0 for the game’s first 30 minutes.
“I think (it motivated me) to see my team work so hard in the field in front of me, so when it got to me, I had to help reset the field,” Matthews said after the loss. “After that first (penalty kick) on me, we made it a big deal to not have any more goals go in. I think that got me through.”
With 9:25 left on the first-half clock, Wolves junior Megan Nowack was called for a controversial handball inside of the Crusaders’ penalty area — a call met with disapproval from both Nowack and the hundreds of Woods Charter supporters in the stands — leading to the game’s lone penalty kick.
Christ the King’s Riley Milligan, who would later be named the title game’s Most Valuable Player, opted to take the kick, lining up one-on-one against Matthews. And Milligan wasted no time trotting up to the ball and slotting it toward the top-right corner of the net before Matthews had a chance to react. The Crusaders had officially snapped the Wolves’ playoff shutout streak, securing a 1-0 lead that they’d take with them into the halftime break.
The second half would be much of the same, with the Crusaders continuing to stifle the Wolves’ attack while they were unable to get into position to score their own goals.
Through the first 14 minutes of the second half, the lone shot from Christ the King came on a deep free kick after a Wolves’ yellow card, which was ultimately saved by Matthews.
But in the 54th minute, Crusaders junior Elle Gorman lofted a pass from the right side of the penalty area, leading senior Daniela Evans toward the net. Matthews jumped up in an attempt to snatch the ball out of the air before Evans could get to it, but Evans’ head connected with the ball mere milliseconds before Matthews’ hands, sending the ball bouncing into the back of the net and giving her team a 2-0 lead on the first non-penalty-related goal of the game.
With the way the Wolves’ offense was playing up to that point, a two-goal deficit felt insurmountable. But that didn’t stop them from trying.
Woods Charter sophomore Leyla Noronha, the team’s leading scorer on the season, spent most of the second half trying to get into open space. Stewart has often cited how dangerous she is with her feet, making defenders miss with her footwork and speed, which complements her superb shot-making ability.
There were multiple times throughout the half where she’d get a through-pass leading her toward the Crusaders’ goal, only to be swarmed by blue jerseys that would bump her, trip her up and force her to lose possession.
It was a frustrating afternoon for Noronha, whose 50 goals on the season were well over the goal count of Christ The King’s scoring leader, junior Anna Bowman, who had 18.
“When we had the space up until the semifinal, we used it really well. What we’ve now got to do is transition to when there’s no space and there’s ultimate pressure,” Stewart said. “It’s just that belief in quick touches . … They’re at an elite level, they’ve got players who play on an elite level and you can see that in the way they move the ball and they cross the ball. So you’ve got to learn to play at that level.”
In the 67th minute, Perry took a shot at the net from the top of the penalty area, which was saved by Matthews. But instead of being able to catch the ball and hold onto it, it hit her torso as she dove to the ground, where junior Abby Olean was waiting to bang in the rebound for a 3-0 lead, finishing off the game’s scoring and sealing the Crusaders’ title-clinching victory.
When it was all said and done and the award ceremony had concluded, with Milligan getting the MVP award and the Crusaders taking photos with the 2021-22 1A State Champions banner, Stewart spoke with his team near its bench before the players exited the field for the final time this season.
His message was clear: this isn’t over.
“Learn from what we’re seeing and decide what we want to do about it,” Stewart said. “We didn’t quite get there today, but next year is a new challenge. We’ve got to get back here and do the same thing, but we’re going to get to the absolute top of the mountain.”
This year, Woods Charter had the best season in program history, starting with its near-unbeaten record (19-1-2) and continuing with its No. 1 seed in the East, 1A East Regional title and the state championship game appearance. And it did it all with a group of nine sophomores leading the way.
“Aside from losing two seniors, we’re going to be stronger next year. We’ve got some players coming up, we’ve got a junior class that is going to be a year older,” he said. “I told them to go play club, go learn from other coaches and get more experience. Start tomorrow. … Find a way to keep playing, don’t wait until January. Next year starts now.”
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