High School Soccer
Northgate pulls off important sweep of Starr’s Mill
by Doug Gorman
A wet Monday at Henry Seldon Field easily went down as one of the best collective nights for Northgate High’s soccer programs this season.
Without showing any rust following a week off for spring break, respective lineups earned victories over Starr’s Mill, each of which were both pivotal and essential in girls and boys Region 3-AAAAA state playoff races.
Both opponents entered with formidable records, especially the Panthers, who hadn’t lost a game yet in region play.
That all ended against the Vikings, who closed out a doubleheader sweep with a 1-0 win.
The victory capped off a night that began with the Lady Vikings holding on for a 2-1 victory that all but sealed a No. 2 seed in the upcoming Class AAAAA state playoffs and a first-round game at home.
Last year, Northgate’s girls won four consecutive road playoff games en route to the program’s first state soccer championship.
“We have closed the gap in recent years, but there is still something about playing those teams from Fayette County-the Starr’s Mills, McIntosh’s and Whitewater’s that are just intimidating,” said Northgate head coach Bryan Hicks. “This was special coming off of spring break. We played well in both games. We feel like we can beat anybody and it is starting to show.”
Goaltending proved to be the catalyst in both victories with Mattea Lewis keying the girls and Cooper Morrison standing tall for the boys en route to a shutout.
“There were big saves in both of our games tonight,” Hicks said
Both girls teams began this week with nearly identical records while separated by just one spot in the Class AAAAA state rankings with Starr’s Mill (14-2, 8-1) second and Northgate (14-1, 8-2) third overall among the top-10.
All that matters now, however, is the playoff standings, which has the Lady Vikings leapfrogging Starr’s Mill and earning at least one home game in the postseason barring a victory, as anticipated, against winless Mt. Zion-Jonesboro to close the 4-AAAAA schedule.
“Getting a chance to play at home to start the playoffs would be huge,” Hicks said.
Northgate’s boys, meanwhile, are still playing for their postseason lives while able to stay in the thick of the hunt for the final two state playoff berths while battling elimination against a 11-4 Panthers team that had yet to lose in 4-AAAAA.
The win pushed the Vikings’ region record to 5-3, a half-game behind Ola and Forest Park with an extra game remaining.
Northgate (8-5-1) will play Mt. Zion-Jonesboro before ending the season in a makeup with Forest Park (9-4-1, 6-3) in a game that could ultimately decide the last state playoff berth.
The Vikings set the tone immediately on Monday against Starr’s Mill (now 8-1 in 4-AAAAA), keeping the game scoreless through the opening 40 minutes.
“I think playing the way we did in the the first half just helped us get more and more confidence,” Hicks said.
Halfway through the final half, Northgate’s Stephen Baxley scored the eventual game-winner on a header off a throw-in from teammate Montana Lewis.
“Montana made a really good throw to me and I was able to get my head on it and into the net,” Baxley said. “This was big. We knew we had to have this game if we wanted to make the playoffs. We just have to keep working hard.”
The second half turned physical with two yellow cards called against each team and a late red card in the final 10 seconds against the Panthers.
Starr’s Mill had a chance to connect on two corner kicks in the final 10 minutes, but the Vikings defensive effort — led by James Skalski — helped prevented shots from getting through.
Skalski made two impressive defensive plays late in the contest, heading a shot away from the goal. Later, he took the ball away from Panthers player and carried it up field.
Morrison continued his inspiring play in net, fueled by the memory of his late grandfather.
“I am playing for him,” he said. “He is my inspiration. This was a good win for us. We have been playing hard.
As for the Lady Vikings, after grabbing the quick first-half lead, Northgate’s girls used stellar defense the rest of the game to pull of its opening victory.
Lewis was a difference maker for Northgate making 18 saves, including one in the closing seconds. Her biggest stop may have come with just under 10 minutes to go off a loose ball following a Starr’s Mill header on goal.
“It was really a great team effort tonight,” Lewis said. “We just have to keep working and we feel like we can go all the way again.”
The Lady Vikings used a quick strike offense against the Lady Panthers, taking a 2-0 halftime lead with both goals coming in the first seven minutes of the game.
Senior Taylor Hendrix immediately caught Starr’s Mill keeper Paige Betsill off guard just seconds into the contest when the first shot of the game turned into a goal when Betsill was unable to hang on to the ball.
Six minutes later, Northgate pushed the early lead to 2-0 when Reece Weaver took a pass from Lily Barron.
The Lady Panthers didn’t roll over, keeping possession for the majority of the second half before eventually closing to within a goal with just eight minutes left in regulation. Northgate’s back line of Bailey Swindell, Ashley Keller and Hayli Verbanic were as much a force defensively down the stretch in the win.
Starr’s Mill managed four more shots at Lewis, the last of which with two seconds left, only to come up short.