Talk about pressure! After playing 110 intense, scoreless minutes of soccer-including two 15-minute overtimes-against host West Ottawa in the district title game Friday night, May 29, the Rams needed to outshoot the Panthers at point-blank range to call the title theirs.
Assistant coach Scott Hazel, using an abandoned envelope from a greeting card, quickly jotted down the names of five players from the Rams’ roster of 22 to take the shots. Hazel was shaking so badly that his handwriting was barely decipherable.
Meanwhile, four-year goalkeeper Kristin Darby-who has been nursing a sore shoulder since Wednesday’s 5-0 shutout against Hudsonville in the district semifinal-prepared to stop five West Ottawa shots. And waiting anxiously in a line in front of the goal was the entire Ram brigade, with the five chosen ones waiting nervously among them. In the stands, their parents anxiously bit their lips and prayed for success.
The Rams won the toss and opted to shoot first in the every-other lineup. Senior co-captain Rachel Doud, a deceptively fast midfielder, stepped to the line first. She shot and scored from 12 yards out, sending the Rockford crowd into hysterics. West Ottawa’s first player did the same, however, and the score was tied. Next up for Rockford was Jordan Diffenderfer, whose wily and aggressive play often confuses the opposition. Her shot flew past late-diving Panther goalkeeper Katie Overway. But West Ottawa scored again, making the score even.
Sydney Benda, the Rams’ sophomore standout, was third in the shoot-out lineup for the Rams. She scored, and the crowd went crazy. Again, West Ottawa echoed the result, putting the pressure on Rockford defender Sam Decker as she stepped to the line. Decker took her shot and scored, too, but because the referee had not blown his whistle, she was forced to shoot again. Her next shot put the Rams up 4-3 in the shootout.
West Ottawa’s next shot hit the post and bounced off, giving Rockford sophomore Lanie Esch, who was just called up to the team on Wednesday from the junior varsity squad, the opportunity to seal the 1-0 win. She answered the challenge, and the Rams captured their third district title in four years.
“We so deserved that!” said Hazel after the game. “I was going to be so bumming if we didn’t win. We outplayed them.”
“We were the team to win,” echoed first-year head coach Amira Ponne. “It’s good that we came out on top. With penalty kicks, that’s not always the case. We out-shot them [26-6]. We should have had at least three goals. We hit the bar twice. We got unlucky. I give so much credit to our girls for keeping their composure. Sam Decker had to do it twice. Lanie came on the team on Wednesday and did it.”
The Rams, who won the conference tournament a week earlier, placed six girls on the All-District squad: Kate Huyser, Benda, Darby, Matti Graves, Decker, and Doud. Ponne was named the District Coach.
The victory over the Panthers avenged an earlier 2-2 tie during the regular season. That tie kept the Rams from sharing the league title with East Kentwood. The Rams advanced to the regional opener this week at East Kentwood. They will face the winner of the Portage Northern district.
The Rams began their district run May 25 with a 2-1 double overtime victory against host Holland. The Rams had beaten the Dutch early in the season in a scrimmage at Grand Valley State University, but they would find their hosts a stingy foe.
Although the Rams out-shot the Dutch, the only goal Rockford scored in regulation came with two minutes left in the first half. Jenna Lysne dished the ball to Benda 20 yards out from the goal. Benda’s shot ricocheted off the right post to the left before a Dutch defender bumped it in.
The Dutch scored with 45.5 seconds left in the game to send it into overtime. Becca Lynn placed a corner kick right in the middle of the Ram defense, and Erin Schregardus headed it in.
After a frustrating first overtime on the hot, humid night, the Rams wasted no time in ending the game 43 seconds into the second overtime. Emily Cowan passed the ball up to Graves, who dribbled up on the left. She passed the ball to Huyser, who smartly cut around the defense and goalie and patiently took the shot from close range.
“After the goalie came out, the goal was wide open,” said Huyser. “The two defenders bit on the cut, I saw a wide open goal, and I put it in.”
Ironically, Huyser added, “I just didn’t want it to go into a shootout for Darby’s sake. Shootouts are nerve-wracking.”
“I was thinking this can’t be my last game,” said Graves, who scrapped her way past the defense to set up Huyser’s shot. “I was doing anything I could to get the ball to the goal.”
The victory over Holland set the Rams up for a rematch against Hudsonville, which had held Rockford to a 1-0 win in April. This time, the Rams showed no mercy, outscoring the Eagles 5-0 in a lopsided victory. Graves scored two of the goals with assists from Huyser.
“They have seen the light,” said Ponne about the Huyser/Graves connection. “Their wires are definitely crossing, and they are playing like they have played with each other for years. They are really in sync and playing relentlessly aggressive.”
Also scoring in the game were Huyser, Britanni Pierce and Diffenderfer.