BY ED WRIGHT
June 17, 2010, 1:15 a.m.
With ice packs taped to their ankles, knees and other assorted joints, and smiles glued to their faces, members of Plymouth's soccer team worked their way across the Holt High School soccer pitch late Wednesday night to share a triumphant embrace with their loved ones.
The Wildcats proved that knocking off a giant can be both painful and exhilarating at the same time.
Plymouth, which was unranked all season with the exception of a late-season honorable mention nod, played the role of David against Portage Central's Goliath, earning a 2-1 double-overtime shootout victory over the unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Mustangs (25-1-2) in a Division 1 semifinal instant classic.
The Wildcats won their third post-season shootout in three tries (all five of the team's playoff games have spilled into overtime) when with the 'Cats leading in penalty kicks, 3-2, Jennifer Babcock ripped a shot past Portage Central keeper Maura Bennett into the top-right shelf, setting the fuse for a joyful team hug around the 40-yard line.
The Wildcats earned the right to play in Saturday's 3 p.m. Division 1 state final against Novi at Michigan State University. They are the first team in the eight-year history of Plymouth High School to advance to a single-game state final.
Novi defeated Rochester Adams, 1-0, in the other D1 semifinal played Wednesday night. Plymouth lost to Novi, 1-0, on May 24 in the two teams' only meeting this season.
"When you get a team that loves each other and loves the game like we do, this is what you get," said Babcock, moments after her victory-clinching PK. "It's magic."
One thought raced through her mind as she approached the climactic penalty kick, Babcock added.
"All I could think about was the team and how bad they wanted it," she said. "It gave me that much more confidence."
"I shoot for the same spot on the net every time, so I wasn't about to change that."
"We're in the state final - it's hard to believe," said Plymouth head coach Jeff Neschich, who took over the reins of the program in its second season. "Wow!
"That was a very organized team we were playing against, But, again, our strong defense rose to the occasion. We just tried to minimize their chances. They had quite a few good chances, but Marissa came up big again."
It didn't take long for Portage Central's well-oiled machine to shift into high gear, sending on-the-mark crosses into the box to 2009 Miss Soccer Paige Wester, Charlie Socia and Taylore Peterson.
But throughout the scoreless first half, one Mustang threat after another was repelled by the Wildcats' textbook defense, which received incredible efforts from Katie Moss, Meeghan Hughes, Katie Krajewski and Alyssa Burris, who were often outsized, but not out-determined.
Junior keeper Marissa Williams also sparkled, making close to a dozen legitimate saves in the first 40 minutes alone.
"In my four years playing Plymouth soccer, I've never seen a team play with more heart than this team did tonight," said senior co-captain Meeghan Hughes. "We're running with it all the way to the state final game."
"Our team is playing so strong together," added Krajewski. "We're just on a roll."
Battling fatigue and a super-skilled opponent, Plymouth's mid-field contingent of Vittoria Miller, Zoe Foster, Stephanie Dillon, Katelyn Watson, Jessica Heck and Jessica Scott stepped up big time throughout the contest, helping in the box when needed and providing momentum-shifting plays in the center third when the need arose.
The scoreboard finally lit up for the first time eight minutes into the second half when Plymouth junior McKenzie Hengesh made a remarkable play despite being blanketed by a PC defender.
After securing a ball sent in by Stephanie Sheridan, Hengesh juked a Mustang at the 18-yard line then ripped a shot past Bennett to score the Wildcats' first regulation goal in the entire post-season.
"That gave us a huge lift," said Williams.
Four minutes later, however, it appeared the Mustangs had netted the equalizer when Shelby Humphries headed in a shot. The goal was wiped out by an offsides call.
Plymouth barely preserved its lead with 11:30 left in regulation when Wester headed the ball off the cross bar.
PC deadlocked the game five minutes later when Arnett lofted a free kick in the direction of Miss Soccer, who one-timed a low sizzler past Williams to make it 1-1 with 6:54 left.
Hengesh nearly struck again with 1:11 on the clock when her header off a corner kick appeared headed for the upper left shelf of the goal until Bennett made a spectacular save by leaping and fisting the ball out of harm's way.
Bennett gave the Mustangs the upper-hand early in the shootout by stoning Plymouth's first shooter, Abby Livingston. However, PC was unable to capitalize when Peterson's first offering sailed three feet high of the cross bar.
Both teams' next two shooters nailed their shots - Plymouth's Jessica Scott and Jessica Heck; and PC's Arnett and Natalie Hall, tying the shoot-out score at 2-2. Arnett's shot actually hit the goal post before ricocheting in off the back of a diving Williams.
A few moments after Moss gave Plymouth a 3-2 advantage, Williams made the play of the night, stretching to her right to knock away Socia's laser.
Babcock then slowly walked up to the ball that had history and destiny written all over it and with one strong swing of her right leg, knocked Goliath out of the playoffs and placed David one more magical win closer to a state title.
Ed Wright can be reached at (734) 453-1980 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Play often got physical as Stephanie Dillon can attest to following this close encounter with Portage Central's Lindsey Arnett (Ed Wright photo)
Marissa Williams goes
horizontal to make one of her two shoot-out saves. (photo by Ed Hengesh)
The Wildcats swarmed the
Portage Central players in the 18-yard box the entire night. Plymouth
players pictured above (from left) are Meeghan Hughes, Stephanie
Dillon, Vittoria Miller (background) and Katie Krajewski. (Ed Wright
Jessica Heck stays with PC's Charlie Socia during the first half. (Ed Wright photo)
offense. (Ed Wright photo)
Jennifer Babcock wins a 50/50 ball against a Mustang defender. (Ed Wright photo)
Plymouth's Katie Moss and Portage Central's Lindsey Arnett hit the turf in an effort to secure the ball. (Ed Wright photo)