CHAPEL HILL — As the ball glides across each blade of grass, sliding past the goalkeeper and colliding with the back of the net, a look of elation washes over the faces of the Woods Charter women’s soccer team.
Then comes the embrace.
Lucy Miller grabs her teammate Leyla Noronha, hugging her with both arms and spinning her around, nearly lifting her off of the ground.
Optics would have you believe that Noronha had just scored the go-ahead, game-winning goal, lifting the Wolves to the third round of the postseason in electric fashion.
The reality is, that goal gave top-seeded Woods Charter a 4-0 lead in the 49th minute of its second-round 1A playoff game against No. 16 North Moore last Thursday, a game in which the Wolves went on to post a clean sheet with a 5-0 victory.
But that’s just how the Wolves are.
“I really love playing with her, she’s a really great player,” Miller said of Noronha. “We’re just really close and we play really well together. … When we can get our 1-2s off of each other, it’s something special.”
Miller and Noronha have accounted for 3.9 goals per game this season and it showed, with the duo combining to score 4 of the team’s 5 goals in the shut-out victory — including Noronha’s hat trick, her ninth of the season and fourth game in a row accomplishing the 3-goal feat.
If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the two of them had been playing together for years, but it’s quite the contrary. Miller, a junior, has played just 18 games in a Woods Charter uniform.
Two years ago, she wasn’t even in the state, having moved to Pittsboro from Pennsylvania in the middle of her sophomore year.
Last season, she was a sophomore on Northwood’s soccer team — scoring zero goals (and taking just two shots) in 11 games — before transferring this season.
This year, she’s second on the team in scoring (1.3 goals per game).
“She wins so many tackles, she uses both feet, she’s got great touch, her I.Q. is off the charts, she gives us that glue in the middle,” Graeme Stewart, the Wolves’ head coach, said of his junior transfer after the win. “She just does so many things for us. She’s a major addition to the team this year. … She’s really made us a different team.”
Part of the reason for Miller’s spike in goals comes from a position change, switching from a center-back — where she played at Northwood last season and still plays with her travel team — to a center-mid, where she’s spending more time on the offensive.
“It’s definitely different … I was a little more comfortable here, but it’s fun,” Miller said. “I feel like I can control the game more. I like me and Chloe Richard together, because we’re also really close, so it’s fun to be able to play out there with her, just in a new position and get exposure.”
The Wolves came into the game against the Mustangs fresh off of a first-round bye, having claimed the No. 1 seed in the East with an unbeaten mark of 15-0-2 on the season.
They hadn’t allowed more than one goal in a game since March 14.
That trend would continue into the third round, where the Wolves handled the visiting No. 8 Voyager Academy Vikings, 4-0, for another clean-sheet victory.
But against North Moore and Voyager, there was one primary concern: the absence of their usual goalkeeper.
Jana Williams — a senior that has been a brick wall in net this season, allowing as many goals (10) as she has posted shut outs (10) — was off on a senior school retreat that impacted both games, leaving junior Maddie Sparrow, usually a midfielder, to play keeper.
“I’ll give a shout out to Maddie in goal, that was her first full game in goal and she did fantastic,” Stewart said. “She’s a beast. She’d run into a truck for you, it’s just the way she is. She’s an outstanding kid. I didn’t want to play in goal when I was a kid, but she said, ‘Sure, if that’s what we’ll need, I’ll do it.’”
While Sparrow didn’t have too many chances to show off her goalkeeping prowess with the Wolves’ defense rarely giving their opponents a shot on the offensive end — the Mustangs and Vikings combined for just two shots on goal in 160 minutes — she appeared to play well, taking after Williams and posting her first solo shut out of the year, followed by another.
“I think it’s just the confidence, with us (believing) in her, that plays a big role in it,” Richard said. “And she’s been playing really well, I think that’s definitely helping.”
While a 5-0 shut out is nothing to scoff at, it was clear that Woods Charter was coming off of a bye in its win over North Moore.
The Wolves weren’t the sharpest with the ball, knocking a handful of shots off of either the crossbar or the post while simultaneously struggling to pass the ball consistently, which caught Stewart’s eye from the jump.
“One thing we’ve got to do better is move the ball, that’s what we’ve been doing all season,” Stewart said. “Whether it’s the bumpy field or whatever, I’m not sure, but when we did it — and we did it in spurts — we were a different team.”
But what they lacked in capitalizing on opportunities, they made up for in heart, hussle and physicality.
The Wolves won seemingly every battle for possession and never allowed any real offensive opportunities for the Mustangs, mostly preventing Sparrow from having to make a big save.
“They were very physical, they came prepared and they put their bodies on the line,” Stewart said of the Mustangs. “They played up against us, so we’ve got to respond to that, we’ve got to get used to that and we’ve got to enjoy it. We’ve got to enjoy the challenge.”
It took the Wolves a few minutes to warm up, but once they did, they got on a roll.
Despite numerous chances in the beginning, Miller got the Wolves on the board in the 19th minute off of a heavy-footed penalty kick that was the result of a Mustang defender bumping into Noronha inside of the penalty area.
Suddenly, a switch flipped.
Woods Charter opened the floodgates with two more goals just a minute apart, with Noronha lasering a shot at the crossbar that smacked the ground, benefiting from a lucky Wolves bounce that gave them a 2-0 lead in the 21st minute, followed by a quick score from Richard at the top of the penalty area to extend her team’s lead to 3-0 in the 22nd minute.
“It can happen both ways. Sometimes, the cliche is that you can be at your weakest defensively right after you score, but it’s just like a shot of adrenaline because the hardest thing to do in the game is score,” Stewart said when explaining the team’s sudden shift after the opening goal. “We worked at all of those chances, and then when it went in, it’s just like, ‘OK, now we’ve got it.’ It just gives that little bit of relief.”
The Wolves outshot the Mustangs, 13-0, in shots on goal in the first half, which never changed after the break as North Moore’s offensive woes continued.
Noronha scored the game’s final two goals with her celebratory shot from the right side of the keeper to make it 4-0 in the 49th minute, followed by a rebound shot off of a blocked Miller header that banged into the back of the net to give the Wolves a 5-0 advantage in the 62nd minute, leading to the clean-sheet win.
If there were any concerns about the Wolves following their second-round matchup against the Mustangs, just about all of them were erased four days later in their third-round clash with the Vikings.
It was a defensive masterpiece, one that rarely saw Voyager possess the ball near Woods Charter’s goal, featuring just a single shot on goal for a Vikings team that could hardly make two or three passes in a row without a Wolves player interfering in some way.
Nothing came easy for the Vikings — just the way the Wolves wanted it.
Throughout all 80 of the game’s minutes, it seemed like every pass had a player in green in perfect position to intercept it, every attempted shot was altered and every Viking was constantly being swarmed by Wolves.
“I thought we were outstanding today, I think from the beginning to the end,” Stewart said with a smile. “We did dominate possession, I think we dominated the space and I think we really limited them to not much at all.”
Offensively, the Wolves continued right where they left off against the Mustangs, consistently pounding the goal with shots and forcing the goalkeeper, freshman Claire Schnee, to make plays with her hands.
Richard had a hat trick in the win, her first of the season.
She started the scoring early, rocketing a shot from the top of the penalty area that gave Schenn no shot at a save, giving the Wolves an early 1-0 lead.
As was the case in last Thursday’s win, Woods Charter scored fairly quickly after its initial goal.
In the 10th minute, Richard was awarded her second goal after she forced a shot from — you guessed it — the top of the penalty area, which collided with Vikings freshman Sophia Burnett, who attempted the deflection, and ricocheted into the net.
Woods Charter carried the lead into the halftime break, putting them just 40 minutes away from a state quarterfinals berth.
And just four minutes into the second half, in the game’s 44th minute, Miller had the ball fall in her lap off of a deflection inside of the penalty area, allowing her to swiftly guide it into the far left corner of the net for a 3-0 Wolves advantage.
All game long, Noronha did everything she could to add to the Wolves’ goal tally, using her footwork to split defenders, get herself into wide-open situations and fire off shots left and right, but aside from a couple of nice saves from Schnee and one attempt that dinged off of the post, she just couldn’t make it happen.
It was her first scoreless game of the season.
Luckily, however, her teammates stepped up, providing the firepower as the Wolves cruised to the win, capped off by Richard’s third and final goal in the 60th minute.
“She’s dynamite,” Stewart said of Noronha, “but what I’m really pleased with tonight is that Leyla hasn’t scored and we still won like that. What we’ve focused on all year is having balanced scoring. What we don’t want to do is just to be one-trick ponies, to be one player that everybody knows about, they mark her, and then you’ve got nothing to do.
“If we’re doing what we’re doing, like we did tonight, it’s very unpredictable for them,” he added, “and it’s much more difficult.”
With the win, Woods Charter (17-0-2) will take on the No. 4 Perquimans Pirates (10-4-2) at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary on Thursday in the state quarterfinals as its quest for an unbeaten season rolls on.
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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