CARY — You could say Jana Matthews doesn’t play nice with others. The Woods Charter senior goalkeeper didn’t let the high-riding Hobbton Wildcats score even one goal as she kept the Wolves’ playoff shutout streak alive and helped her teammates advance to the NCHSAA 1A women’s soccer state championship for the first time in school history.
On the strength of that dominant 5-0 victory, the Wolves (19-0-2) will now face the Christ the King Crusaders (17-2) from Mecklenburg County in the title game.
“This is our first time to the championship game, and I’m really proud of these girls to just keep playing, keep going and just keep believing,” said Woods Charter Head Coach Graeme Stewart.
When the momentum shifted in the middle of the first half with his team desperately clinging to a 1-0 lead, they could have collapsed, Stewart said, “but they wouldn’t let that happen. They have too much belief in themselves, and they turned it around, and that’s what I really like.”
Matthews made sure the lead didn’t change hands.
“I think this has definitely been my best game this whole season. I think my punts were on point today, and in general leading the team from the back was helpful. I think the intensity made it easy to do what I had to do,” Matthews said.
“One more game and then I’m done. I think that would be my best reward, to win the championship,” she added.
Matthews now has 11 shutouts on the season. That prowess is all the more impressive considering she had not played in the net since middle school, switching to goalie from defender this year.
“So far, so good,” she said in understatement.
On Tuesday, at WakeMed Soccer Park, she stymied a Hobbton team (19-2-2) that had outscored opponents 124-20, and had breezed through the playoffs with a 20-2 scoring edge.
“They were definitely scary (on offense),” Matthews said. “It was just really exciting. I had a good time.”
While Matthews was snagging line drives, smothering kicks or rushing out of the box to challenge oncoming opponents one-on-one to thwart a score, junior midfielder Lucy Miller was using her head, both figuratively and literally.
Miller scored the Wolves’ second goal of the game, banging in a header off of a corner kick by sophomore midfielder Cate Czyzewski late in the first half that froze the Hobbton goalie.
“I love working corners. I think I’m better in the air, so I like to try to get in the air,” where her height gives her a distinct advantage, Miller said. “Headers are something I really wanted to work on this season, so it was exciting to get one in” after struggling in recent games when her attempts sailed over the crossbars.
It appeared she had a second goal earlier in the half when she banged one in from in front of the net, but the referee ruled she made contact with the goalie while she was holding the ball, forcing a fumble. Had it been a score, the game could have taken a dramatic shift in the Wolves’ favor, Stewart said.
“The way it looked to us was it was a perfectly good goal,” Stewart said, and the ball slipped out of the goalie’s hands without any contact. “That’s the ref’s decision. It is what it is.”
Stewart said Miller has been a huge part of the team’s success.
“She’s great on both sides of the ball. She’s great with the ball, she’s great winning it back. She’s just a presence defensively, clearing their corners. On our corners she’s a threat,” Stewart said.
Until Miller scored, the game was very much up in the air. Stewart credited the Hobbton players, who “were appropriately physical. They were tough, and that’s what I expected in the semifinals … They’ve got some good runners.”
For about 15 minutes in the first half, the Wildcats threatened repeatedly, pushing into Woods Charter territory, keeping the pressure on and the play on the other side of midfield. Stewart said his players gave the ball away too much, and when they gained possession, didn’t make good decisions.
“That’s what we talked about at halftime. We needed to get the ball wider more often than what we were doing, and that’s what we did in the second half,” Stewart said. “I think overall, over the 80 minutes, we were the better team. We were the stronger team. We overall dominated possession.”
Sophomore Chloe Haswell was a vital part of the second-half surge, pumping in a pair of goals and working the field hard.
“It was wild, honestly. It was really hectic. I just tried to body my way through those defenders, use my body to push through,” Haswell said. That was no easy feat, as she explained. “I am the smallest. I’m 4-foot-11. It was really hard to get those goals. I’m proud of myself.”
Haswell has played most of the season at left wing, but Stewart had a hunch and played it, moving her up top for the game in what turned out to be a bit of generalship genius.
“I think it’s one of the biggest games of my life for sure,” Haswell said. “Honestly, my last couple of games weren’t that good. I was just trying to do as much as I could for this team. I really am grateful for them. They really have given me their all this season, and I just wanted to give something back to them. I just wanted to score as much as I could if I had the chance.”
She sealed the deal for the Wolves, driving in the last two goals to put the game out of reach. She scored off of a penalty kick by junior midfielder Chloe Richard, and on a corner kick by Czyzewski.
“I basically got in front of defenders. I like to go behind them and trick them, and then go in front of them in the last second to get in their way, and to manipulate that and to score off of those,” Haswell said.
“I’m really proud of the way Chloe played in that second half,” Stewart said. “Scoring two good goals in a big game, that’s all a striker can do. She was just, for them, being really annoying. She was all over the place. She was trying to find it, and that’s good.”
Sophomore forward Leyla Noronha, the Wolves’ leading scorer with 50 goals, also had a pair of scores. Earlier in the season, she said she believed the team could make a deep run in the playoffs, but tempered her expectations with a prediction they would make the state title game next year.
“I am so happy about it. We’re making history here, and I think it’s absolutely crazy. I really, really want to win the state championship now. So I hope we’re also going to destroy the next team,” Noronha said.
She was pulled from the game late in the second half, limping slightly off the field. She caught a knee to the thigh in a tight scrum off a corner kick and developed a charley horse.
“Before I got hit I was doing really well, and I think I was playing as best as I could,” Noronha said. “It’s OK. I like battle scars.”
She said she was especially pleased to break the ice with the game’s first goal. She had a few touches, beat two defenders in the box and created space to rifle it in.
“It was like, ‘I’m this close. I’m not going to shank it. I’m going to put it in the back of the net,’ and that’s what I did,” Noronha said.
She said her second goal, expanding the lead to 3-0, “made me really happy. I made a girl fall, I hit it with my left foot and shot it in the right corner, and then the crowd goes wild.”
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