High School Soccer
East Coweta holds off Hillgrove 1-0
Nikki Brandley may date a starting linebacker at East Coweta High School. But the Lady Indian senior soccer player certainly proved on Wednesday that she can certainly take care of herself on the field with the same tenacity of current beau, Jay McKnight.
In a game where East Coweta’s veteran team slowly increased the tempo against a younger Hillgrove lineup in the second round of the GHSA Class AAAAAA playoffs, it was Brandley’s hustle that helped instigate senior teammate Ren Waters’ game-winning goal with just under 12 minutes to play in a 1-0 victory over the Lady Hawks at Garland Shoemake Stadium.
East Coweta, which improved to 14-5-1 this season after winning an Area 3-AAAAAA championship, will travel to play Area 6-AAAAAA winner Centennial (10-8-0) on Saturday in the state quarterfinals.
“I’m proud of them. We’re in the final eight and we’ve got a shot,” head coach Chris Luppens said. “We’re one step closer to our goal and we’ll see what we can do here.”
The win vaulted East Coweta into the GHSA Elite 8 in girls soccer for the first time since Brandley and Waters were freshman starters in 2011.
On Wednesday, though, the shoe was on the other foot. A nucleus of four seniors and four junior starters had the Lady Indians poised to put Hillgrove (10-7-1), the No. 3 seed from 4-AAAAAA, on its heels from the opening kickoff, forcing play in the Lady Hawks end for most of the game and the bulk of the final 40 minutes before finally coming through.
Hillgrove’s best opportunities to put a ball behind a combination of keepers Kellsey Weaver and Sam Hoffman came on the last of its four corner kicks when Kaitlyn Bek’s header at the far post bounced to the ground and wide.
Otherwise, the majority of pressure came toward the direction of Hillgrove goalie Abby Whiteside, who seemed to have Brandley stopped on a breakaway after the petite, blonde hair, blue-eyed Lady Indian muscled her way past a defender inside the box.
An exchange between Brandley and Whiteside saw the ball deflect before a second shot rebounded out to the right with a radar that seemed to lock on to Waters running on to the play.
After having several shots from close range either gobbled up by the Hillgrove keeper or sent just wide, Waters made true with a right-footed blast that eluded Whiteside and three Lady Hawks defenders scrambling to get back into position near the goal line.
Much like East Coweta’s opening round shutout over Colquitt County, the Lady Indians never let Hillgrove pressure either of their two keepers after earning two quick corner kicks within the first eight minutes of play.
The latter saw Weaver eventually charge out of goal to cut off a serve from the right side. Senior Katie Sutherland and outside backers Abby Pepper and Tara Federico held their ground while Brandley spent the final 30 minutes before halftime on the back line after starting the game up front.
“[Katie and Nikki] have played together so long that they understand each other,” Luppens said. “That’s why I did that.”
The move helped settle East Coweta while continuing to make a steady push led by Waters and midfielders Lynnsey Danford, S.K. Palmer, Anna Lauzon and Morgan Haase.
Haase, a sophomore, had a long shot from about 30 yards along the right wing go just wide of the far post in the first half.
Waters, meanwhile, accounted for at least three of her team’s six shots before halftime, including several spin moves but unable to get much of a foot into the ball while shadowed by defenders.
Luppens, though, increased the intensity to start the second half when he reunited Brandley and Waters on the front line. Within the opening 10 minutes, Danford got a header toward the net on a feed from Lauzon and Brandley followed by putting a right-foot off the crossbar from the left side.
Haase added another opportunity on a header that deflected right to the Hillgrove keeper with 18 minutes left in regulation.
One goal, though, was all East Coweta needed Wednesday to reach the Class AAAAAA Elite 8.
Hillgrove traveled to Coweta County in last year’s Sweet 16 before knocking Newnan out of the state playoffs. But they returned to Cobb empty handed this time around.
“They’re a good team. How could I not be proud of this group,” Luppens asked. “There’s only 16 teams practicing at this point of the season. I’ll take a 1-0 win any day.”
Lady Indians 1, Lady Hawks 0
Hillgrove 0 0 — 0
East Coweta 0 1 — 1
Goals: East Coweta — Ren Waters (68th minute)
Keepers: East Coweta — Kellsey Weaver, Sam Hoffman (41st minute); Hillgrove — Abby Whiteside.