By Bob Sutton
Special to The Alamance News
UPDATE SAT. P.M.: EASTERN WINS SOCCER STATE CHAMPIONSHIP. Check back for game details.
A light drizzle fell on Eastern Alamance’s stadium shortly after the end of the Class 3-A East Region final for girls’ soccer Tuesday night.
No worries, nothing could dampen the Eagles’ excitement.
Eastern Alamance’s quest for a return to the state championship game has been achieved.
The Eagles topped visiting Jacksonville 4-1, so they have a chance to earn the top prize that escaped them a year ago.
“This year, we have a lot more faith in ourselves,” senior Molly Widderich said.
And for good reason. The Eagles hold a 19-0-1 record going into Saturday’s 11:00 a.m. title matchup with South Point (22-0-3) at UNC Greensboro Soccer Stadium.
“This year was going to be our year and that was the plan,” Eastern coach Bob Webber said.
So if last year the Eagles were surprise finalists before losing to Lake Norman Charter in Cary, this time around Eastern has looked formidable throughout the season. It became a matter of staying the course.
“We were very focused to take one step at a time,’ Webber said.
The most-recent strides came against second-seeded Jacksonville (24-1).
The Cardinals nearly scored shortly before the midway mark of the first half when Bryleigh Nelson’s shot bounced off the crossbar. Four minutes later, Widderich struck on an impressive move on the left side.
She chipped the ball over Jacksonville goalkeeper Reagan Donnelly to open the scoring.
“I felt like that one was very much against the grain of the game,” Widderich said. “Jacksonville had a lot of momentum.”
The Eagles didn’t let up. Their second tally in a 40-second span also came from Widderich, who produced her 52nd goal of the season. She was the recipient of stellar footwork from Abby Brinker, who drew defenders and delivered an assist with a no-look pass from her heel.
“It was the best assist I’ve ever seen,” Widderich said. “That was all Abby.”
Brinker said: “As soon as I heard her voice (calling for the ball), I knew she’s going to be there. She always finishes.”
Less than 16 minutes into the second half, the Eagles went up 3-0 on a goal from Mackenzie Webber, the coach’s daughter. She converted off a free kick.
Another display of execution resulted in the fourth Eastern goal. Webber’s corner kick was headed in by Brinker.
Along the way, Eagles goalkeeper Karsyn Johnson helped keep the Cardinals at bay. Jacksonville’s Ryder Perry scored with 8:41 remaining.
“That was the best competition that we had seen all season,” Coach Webber said.
As the hugs and photographs continued on the field during the postgame celebration, the Eagles noted the change from a season ago.
“That was so different. That was like, ‘How are we even here?’” Widderich said. “It’s a very different feeling this year.”
Again, the Eagles will play on the last day of the high school season.
“I think we won’t be as anxious,” Brinker said. “There’s an expectation that we can do this.”
South Point, which was the top seed in the West Region, advanced by defeating West Henderson 3-2. The only 2022 loss for South Point came to Lake Norman Charter.
With Eastern going to another title game, Coach Webber said there’s even more reason for optimism.
“This year, I think we’ve got confidence,” he said. “We’ve got health, where last year we had a couple of players out and had to adjust personnel. We don’t have to do that this time. That’s a big part of it.”
Some of the drama involving Tuesday’s game came in the 24 hours prior to the start. Eastern officials announced Monday night that the game would be moved to Mebane Community Park, where there’s artificial turf, because of concerns about recent rains. By late Tuesday morning, word came that the game would be contested on campus after all.
In the regional semifinal last Thursday, Eastern Alamance turned back visiting Dixon by scoring three times in the first half in a 4-0 victory.
Eastern’s goals were scored by Brinker, Ainsley Dial, Widderich and Audrey Hupman. Brinker and Widderich also had assists. Johnson was called upon for four saves. Fourth-seeded Dixon finished with an 18-2-3 record.