Class 4A state tournament

Cartersville girls soccer set to open state playoffs at home

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Cartersville head girls soccer coach Chad Murray says his team has been in a funk since spring break. He’s hoping tonight’s first-round match with Oconee County in the Class 4A state tournament leads to a rejuvenation of sorts.

The Canes certainly have the talent to make some noise in an attractive portion of the bracket. Consistency has been the main hindrance for Cartersville this season, and Murray’s looking forward to seeing his team return to the heights reached earlier in the year.

“We’re hoping to just give a good game [to]night,” he said earlier this week. “I’ve said this for two weeks now, if we can get back to playing pre-spring break soccer, we’ll be all right. … We just haven’t played the same since. If we can get that back, a little bit of the pre-spring break magic, we’ll be all right.”

Before taking the extended time off, the Canes had won their division title in an Alabama tournament. However, coming up short against LaGrange in what amounted to a Region 5-AAAA championship game right before spring break likely left spirits low.

But the way the classification’s bracket sets up, Murray is confident his team can make some noise. If the second-seeded Canes can get past the Region 8-AAAA’s 3 seed, they would either host No. 4 seed White County or travel to top-seeded Heritage.

Should Cartersville reach the quarterfinals, it would more than likely head to Columbus. While not an easy Elite Eight draw, a chance to avoid the triumvirate of private schools that rule the roost in 4A gives the Canes hope of a possible Final Four push.

“If I had to hand pick a quarter-bracket to be in, It would be ours,” Murray said. “Some of the things fell differently this year. It always seems like in the Final Four, it’s going to be St. Pius, Marist, Blessed Trinity and somebody. But Flowery Branch won Marist’s region, meaning St. Pius and Marist will have to meet in the second round.”

That expected Sweet 16 matchup would be a rematch of last year’s state championship game, which Marist won by a 2-1 score. There’s a lot Cartersville has to do before it can potentially take advantage of missing out on an early meeting with a private school with a deep run.

First is tonight’s home tilt with Oconee County. Murray understands breaking down a defense that allowed just 25 goals in 15 games, according to MaxPreps, won’t be easy.

“They run a 4-3-3, but they’re very disciplined in the way they run it,” Murray said. “… They will be very challenging to score against, and we’ve just got to find a way to be able to crack that code.”

On the flip side, the Warriors themselves managed just 30 goals in the regular season. For a frame of reference, the Canes scored 56 times and allowed 32 goals in their 16 games.

“I’m hesitant to say this, but on the two games I watched, they don’t have that dynamic offensive player who really scares you a lot,” Murray said. “They’re just very well coached and do what they do well.

“It’s going to be one of those things where we can’t make the mistakes that hurt us, as we’ve been want to do this year.”

Murray anticipates the kind of game that comes down to which defense plays more fundamentally sound and which offense proves to be more clinical in front of goal. The former area has been an Achilles heel all season, while the latter aspect typically has been a strength.

“We’re a little weaker in the back than we are up top,” Murray said in discussing his defense. “… There’s just a combination of a lack of experience — unless you see a lot of games and a lot of time back there, there’s a lot of little mistakes you can make that end up costing you — and gap control has been our issue. Those channels that they try to get the ball through to let the forwards run onto it, we struggle with that.

“It’s why [to]night you’ll see us in a newer formation we’re going to try. We’re trying to be a little more defensive-minded first, feel out the opponent to see what they’ve got, and then go from there.”

On the other end of the field, Cartersville has one of the most prolific goal-scoring combos found in the area in junior Micah Vance and Kalyn Donegan. According to Murray, Vance enters the postseason with 24 goals on the year, while Donegan has chipped in with roughly 15 goals.

“She’s just an all-around very dangerous forward who can, with her massive right leg, score from 20, 25 yards out,” Murray said of Vance. “She can score off headers. I think she has four or five headers off set pieces. I don’t know that I’ve had a girl who could do that. She can take a player one-on-one; she’s fast, as well. She’s just got a lot of different things in her bag of tricks.”

While Vance enters the match in great goal-scoring form, including finding the back of the net in the Canes’ most recent match, Murray said Donegan has been struggling for confidence a bit. If she rediscovers the finishing ability that helped her land a spot on the 2018 Daily Tribune News all-county team, Oconee County — and any future Cartersville opponents — could be in trouble.

Donegan possesses plenty of talent, completing her sophomore campaign with 13 goals and 11 assists. Speed is undoubtedly her best attribute, and that’s been on display regardless of how Donegan has been finishing.

“I don’t know that there’s anybody we’ve seen this year who can match her in speed,” Murray said.

Overall, Murray said he expects a low-scoring match tonight. Then again, he likened Oconee County to LaGrange, and that game finished 3-2 in overtime.

“I think it’s going to be a battle of attrition,” Murray said. “I really think it’s going to be a defensive struggle. I don’t think the score will be very high. I could be wrong. We could come out [tonight] and the score could be 4-5 or something like that. But I don’t think you’re going to see that many goals.”