Fort Mill Times

Fort Mill girls take winding road in playoffs

Fort Mill's Jessica Tooley, who scored the winning goal for the Jackets' in last Wednesday's match, fights for a loose ball during the Jackets' 1-0 playoff win against Dorman Friday.
Fort Mill's Jessica Tooley, who scored the winning goal for the Jackets' in last Wednesday's match, fights for a loose ball during the Jackets' 1-0 playoff win against Dorman Friday.

Sometimes it was comfortable, sometimes frustrating, most of the time it was downright nerve-wracking.

Ultimately, though, it was a lot of fun.

The first week of the playoffs included more than a few twists and turns for the Fort Mill High School girls soccer team, but the gritty group found a way to get through it, advancing through the first three rounds last week and moving within two games of being named South Carolina state champions.

"Winning each game gives us hope - gives us more confidence that we can go on and win the next one," team captain Taylor Parker said following the second of three playoff victories.

After finishing the season 14-5-1 and winning region 3-AAAA, the Jackets began what they hoped would be a long playoff run last Monday by doing what they did all season.

"We don't want to change anything... we'll allow our play to speak for itself," Head Coach Vic Johnson said as the team prepared for the playoffs. "We just have to stay healthy."

The first step came fairly easily, as Fort Mill handled its opening round opponent, Lancaster, 5-0.

Of the five goals - two by Ashton Wolfe and one each by Kaitlyn Marr, Abbie McDonald and Sarah Thomas - three were assisted.

In addition to a "really solid midfield and a great defense," the offense improved as the end of the season approached and different players began to step up, Johnson said.

After their first win, the Lady Yellow Jackets were set up for what would be an entirely different atmosphere in the second round -- a rematch with fifth ranked Spartanburg, a team that handed Fort Mill its first loss on March 18, 2-1, on a last-minute goal.

"I think that first game took a toll on us," Parker said about the Spartanburg matchup. "We were all a little bit nervous, but really excited."

The Vikings, physically a much larger team than Fort Mill, took the lead six minutes into the game off a corner kick, a lead that would last for most of the match.

Tension mounted and tempers flared as the clock continued to wind down on the Jackets' season and neither team was able to muster much offense. In the 67th minute, however, it seemed like an enormous weight was lifted off the Fort Mill players - and fans - when Parker split a double-team, corralled a loose ball in front of the net and fired it low past Spartanburg goalkeeper Natalie Rainer for the equalizer.

Suddenly, after the end of the season seemed to be looming, the Jackets gained a sudden burst of momentum and gave themselves two chances to win the game in the final minutes, although both would sail just past the goal.

The match would go to extra time, and nearly 20 minutes into the extra period, it was a young player who would claim the spotlight.

Fort Mill freshman Jessica Tooley, with less than a minute remaining, took a pass and found herself with a clear line to the goal from the left corner of the box. Tooley settled the ball, regained her balance and fired a bending shot into the upper right corner of the net, a shot she said she was confident would go in as soon as she hit it.

Parker, who was standing not far from the play, said her heart jumped as soon as she saw the shot go in.

"We were all hoping for a miracle and that was it," she said.

Seconds later, the final whistle blew, sending the Jackets to the third round.

Johnson said switching from a 4-4-2 formation to a 4-3-3 at halftime, adding an extra forward, made a big difference in the game, forcing the Spartanburg defense into errors that the Jackets capitalized on.

The third round match against fourth ranked Dorman was a defensive battle, in which a 30-yard free kick by Parker that curled just under the crossbar was the difference in a 1-0 nail-biter. The score came in the 17th minute and it was the only time a ball found the net all night.

The win was especially sweet as Dorman was the team that knocked Fort Mill out of the playoffs a year ago, in a 1-0 match as well.

In the span of five nights, the Jackets went from one of 32 teams in the playoff bracket to one of the final four in the state.