The Adairsville girls soccer team gave Lumpkin County all it could handle in the first round of the Class 3A state tournament before eventually succumbing to the eight-ranked team in the classification.
Both teams were scoreless entering the final 25 minutes of Wednesday's matchup at Tiger Valley. With the score tied at 1-1, the third-seeded Warriors buried two shots in the span of 24 seconds to effectively seal a 4-1 victory over a scrappy Tigers bunch.
"Our team played really well," Adairsville head coach David Sexauer said. "Probably one our top-three games of the year, and probably the best team we've faced.
"We had a really good game plan in the first half. We talked about and decided to play more defensive. We would just take our chance on a rare counterattack and getting a ball just where we needed it."
Those moments came few and far between in the first half for the No. 2 seed Tigers, but a resolute defense kept things scoreless at the break. The goalpost came to Adairsville's rescue at one point; goalkeeper Havyn Isaac made some key interventions; and last-ditch defending, including an Aleah Abernathy goal-line clearance, saved the Tigers multiple times.
Sexauer was clearly the happier manager at halftime, as his Lumpkin County counterpart could be heard screaming at his players during the interval. It didn't seem to really spur the Warriors on, at least not at first.
Adairsville (10-5-1) had the best chance of the opening exchanges in the second half. Great hustle and determination by Megan Hardin gave her an opportunity to charge in at goal only to see the Lumpkin County keeper sprint off her line to make the stop.
The Warriors (11-6) finally found the breakthrough on a corner kick in the 56th minute. Lumpkin County played the ball short before the original corner-kick taker broke into the box, cut inside and found the back of the net.
Most coaches would have abandoned the defensive shell at that point. However, Sexauer felt like his team had produced enough chances to ride out the game plan a little bit longer.
His decision paid off barely four minutes later. Ellie McBride played a perfectly weighted ball over the top. Cat Wheeler, who hadn't been given many opportunities, latched onto this one. The striker sent a rocket from the right side of the box across the goalie and into the corner to level the score at 1-1.
"When they got that first goal, we knew we couldn't hold that formation too much longer," Sexauer said. "We knew it could work, so we held it and held it and held it. Then five or six minutes later, whatever it was, we got a goal. We knew we were still in it."
Wheeler had missed Adairsville's most recent game after picking up an injury. She clearly wasn't 100%, but she certainly looked at full-strength, when unleashing that unstoppable finish. Wheeler's 28th goal of the season had added significance, as she broke a tie with Emily Collum for most goals scored by an Adairsville sophomore in program history.
"It was one of the best goals of the year for this team," Sexauer said.
Alas, the parity didn't last long. Lumpkin County regained the lead less than four minutes later, and then with the wind knocked out of the Tigers' sails, the Warriors struck again less than 30 seconds later to unofficially seal the hard-fought win.
With 10 minutes left, Isaac saved a penalty kick to keep Adairsville alive. Eventually, the visitors added a fourth goal inside the last minute to add some flattery to the final score.
"We played as hard as we could," Sexauer said, "but that team is balanced, fast and a quality team that shoots well. It was going to be a long difficult road to keep them from scoring."
The defeat marks the end of a great run for the small, but impactful senior class. Isaac, Abernathy and Hannah Deboard were the only 12th-graders on a team loaded with sophomores and freshmen.
Sexauer heaped praise on the trio after their final game, knowing how important they were in leading an inexperienced group to a runner-up finish in Region 6-AAA.
"The seniors really set the tone this year for this team," he said. "... They had a really good feeling for the pulse of the team. Sometimes the girls aren't that way, but our girls really respected our captains. They made a big difference for us."
It's rare to see an upbeat coach in the aftermath of a season-ending loss, but that's exactly what Sexauer was following Wednesday's match. He knew his team faced long odds against a squad ranked inside the top 10.
Given the opponent and the number of Adairsville players experiencing the state playoffs for the first time, Sexauer had reason to smile. Although, he certainly made it clear how much he's going to miss coaching this year's team.
"I was just really pleased with how we played," he said. "We're a young team, and the other coach, I thought he really respected the way we played the game. ...
"This team has been fun to coach, because they do what we ask them to do. They're not a bunch of individuals; they're really a team. I just told the girls in the locker room how much of a joy it's been to coach this team, because of their attitude on the field and in practice. I don't want the season to end, just because I like the girls so much."