Champe’s girls’ soccer team was already in an unfamiliar place Friday, vying for the Virginia 3A East region championship just a year after going winless in its first season of play. But with the contest pushed to a noon start because of Kettle Run’s graduation later that night, Champe altered its normal class schedule to allow students to flow from the school building and into the home stands, elevating the game’s gravity.
The raucous crowd both helped the Knights, who rallied from an early deficit to take a halftime lead, and hampered them, as the pressure of the moment led to critical lapses in a 5-2 loss to the Cougars in Aldie.
“It was a cool feeling to have everyone here, but it was kind of nerve-wracking, too,” Knights freshman Ally Bartlett said. “The students started to file in as we were warming up, and you could feel your nerves rising.”
For a team with no seniors, eight freshmen and only three regular season wins, a few wide-eyed moments are understandable. And in those anxious opening minutes, Kettle Run capitalized with a goal in the game’s third minute. But the Knights’ apprehension soon wore off, making way for the inspired play that had yielded five straight wins and the Conference 28 tournament title.
By pressing the Cougars at midfield with aggressive play, the Knights dominated possession for the rest of the half, setting up five corner kicks and even more open looks at the goal.
In the 35th minute, a Champe throw-in bounced through several players and into the box before Celine Estrada got her foot on it and fired a shot into the net.
Less than three minutes later, Bartlett kicked another hard shot toward the goal that fellow freshman midfielder Blair Thompson used her head to redirect into the net, putting the Knights up 2-1.
“The more we started to play better, the more the crowd got into it, and we played off that,” Thompson said. “We were feeling good. But then halftime. . . . ”
Thompson’s voice trailed off, mirroring the momentum that seemed to trickle dry when the Knights (8-12-2) retook the field for the second half. The same defensive effort that had kept Kettle Run’s two forwards at bay struggled to counter their second and third pushes toward the goal.
Two Taylor Decker scores in the 44th and 48th minutes pushed the Cougars back ahead. Then Erika Blevins directed a free kick from just inside the 40-yard line into the net to put Kettle Run in control in the 50th minute.
“With the opportunities we were getting, I really thought we needed that third or fourth goal just before halftime to give us a bigger cushion because we’ve had a problem of killing off teams when we’re up in the second half,” Knights Coach David Madlin said. “But we gave all we had. I’ve never seen anything like this, where a team doesn’t win a game one year and then wins the conference title, makes it to the region championship and then at state. Who knows? We’re not done yet.”
Champe advances to Friday’s 3A state semifinals in Lynchburg, where it will play either Blacksburg or Lord Botetourt.