Seniors have their night

Deadlocked with Crater through two 40-minute halves and two 10-minute overtime sessions, Ashland High head coach Eric Wolff had a decision to make: which Grizzlies should take the pressure-packed penalty kicks in a shootout that would make or break the team's Southern Sky Conference championship hopes.

"I asked who felt confident and comfortable; I looked at the raised hands and half the team raised their hands," Wolff said. "I told the seniors, 'You guys got dibs. You are seniors, you can prolong your season by winning a shootout. If you have the nerve and you think you can do it, you're welcome to do it."

They had the nerve, all right - and the legs, too.

Five of Ashland's six seniors went a perfect 5-for-5 on PKs and the sixth, goalkeeper Catie Pratt, made a diving save on one of Crater's PKs, leading the Grizzlies to a 1-0, SSC title-clinching victory over the Comets Tuesday under the lights at North Mountain Park.

Pratt's deflection of Rikki Deats' shot &

Crater's second attempt &

to just outside the right post lifted Ashland (7-1 SSC) to within three PK makes of the victory, and the Grizzlies' three remaining shooters made the opportunity count. First, Emily Warnke-Crary scored cleanly, followed by MacKenzie Hedges' equally resounding effort. That left Molly MacGraw, who came within inches of scoring twice during regulation, including a crossbar-clanging rip that drew oohs and ahhs from the crowd way back in the 18th minute.

"I just focused on clearing my mind and not thinking about the outcome," MacGraw said. "Just kick it."

She did, blasting the ball low and to the right, past the outstretched hands of Crater keeper Katie Orr. MacGraw's teammates, watching from midfield, erupted as the ball skidded into the net and charged her. Then together, they danced their way back to Wolff for a group hug.

"It was amazing," MacGraw said. "I've never really had that before, so it's great to be a part of it."

Added Pratt: "Last time we played them we lost and we controlled the whole game, so it was really frustrating. It was good to get them back."

With the win, Ashland avenged that 1-0 loss to Crater (6-1 SSC) back on Oct. 6 and kept alive the Grizzlies' hopes of landing the league's No. — seed to state. Ashland will get that No. — seed if Crater loses its final regular season game Saturday against Eagle Point (3-4 SSC). If Crater prevails, as expected, the Comets and Grizzlies will share the league title and will play Tuesday at North Mountain Park to determine who goes to state as the No. — seed and who goes as No. 2.

"I think it's fun," Crater coach Ed Lindbloom said. "As a player or as a coach, this is the best it gets. We may not have a team that can compete with the best teams in the state, but to be able to do this is just awesome. It's a good thing for the kids and hopefully they'll come back here on Tuesday and learn from it."

The dramatic finish came only after a 100-minute grind that was eerily similar to the last meeting between these teams, with the Grizzlies dominating the battle for possession but failing to cash in on scoring opportunity after scoring opportunity.

Controlling the ball with precision passing, especially along the wings, the Grizzlies outshot the Comets 28-9, generated 11 shots on goal to the Comets' five and kept the ball in Crater's half of the field nearly the entire game. It was an overpowering performance in every way but the one that mattered most: goals scored.

While the Grizzlies came close several times, including a 30-yard boot by MacGraw that Orr barely deflected over the crossbar with a minute and a half left in overtime, they struggled to keep their shots beyond Orr's impressive reach. There was a wide-open shot off a beautiful cross from 10 yards out that sailed high over the crossbar. There was another shot that Orr fumbled, leaving the door open for a follow that never came. And there was a constant stream of indirect kicks that peppered Crater's box. All were saved.

"Yeah, the outcome in the end is all good and great, but I'm disappointed that we weren't able to score," Wolff said. "It was too many missed opportunities that if we play them again we can't afford and when we go to the playoffs we can't afford."

On the flips side, the Comets' offense was stymied again by the Hedges-led Ashland defense, which smothered nearly every jailbreak in a display that looked almost effortless.

The performance left Crater frustrated.

"I don't know what we played. It's definitely not what we've been working on for the last three or four weeks," Lindbloom said. "We just didn't do it, so we've got to get back to the drawing board and figure out how to get these girls motivated to play the way that we want to play."

After the celebration, Wolff and Lindbloom met on the sideline with AHS Athletic Director Karl Kemper for a coin toss to determine the site of the tiebreaker. Lindbloom called tails on the first toss, which landed diagonal in the grass. On the redo, Lindbloom again called tails and this time Kemper caught the coin. It was heads.

How important is the No. — seed to the Grizzlies?

"It's huge," MacGraw said, "just having that confidence of being No. 1. But for me I'm not really looking at the playoffs right now. I'm just looking at conference title."

Sports editor can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or joe.

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