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St. Mary's gutsy rally not enough

St. Mary’s pushed the queens of Oregon girls soccer to their absolute limit Tuesday, nearly ending the Aardvarks’ four-year reign in the OSAA Class 3A/2A/1A state semifinals.

But Stephanie Finley’s strike with five minutes to go in overtime gave visiting Oregon Episcopal a 6-5 victory and secured for the Aardvarks a berth in Saturday’s state championship game.

The second-seeded Crusaders, who had won 13 straight, fought back from a 3-0 deficit only 22 minutes into the game to take a 4-3 lead in first-half stoppage time and scored another equalizer late in the second half before finally succumbing in OT, 6-5.

The third-seeded Aardvarks (14-2) are trying to claim their fifth straight state title and seventh in the last eight years. They’ll get their chance against No. 1-seeded Catlin Gabel, a 9-0 winner over Blanchet Catholic.

The Crusaders (13-2) had a few chances in overtime but it was OES that cashed in when the stakes were at their highest on a play that showcased its star striker. Emily Ford, who had a hand in almost every OES run while also scoring two of the Aardvarks’ first three goals, streaked down the field and drew three defenders before sending a pass over the middle. Finley, alone and in space, didn’t miss from point-blank range.

“I just saw (Ford) making the run and I was hoping she would beat the player, and when she did I knew I had to be in front of the goal in order to put it in,” said Finley, who also scored the Aardvarks’ fourth goal 11 minutes into the second half. “I mean, it was just credit to (Ford). It was all her play, I just had to be there to finish it.”

Several Crusaders raised their hands before the fateful strike calling for an offsides call that never came.

“I think it was pretty close,” Finley said.

The Crusaders twice came oh so close to taking a 6-5 lead of their own, first in regulation and later in the second half of overtime, but a great play by the OES keeper thwarted the first opportunity and a just-missed connection on a free kick negated the second.

With the score tied 5-5 late in regulation and St. Mary’s on the attack, senior midfielder Gabi Castillo took control of a loose ball near the top of the box and fired a laser toward the corner of the goal that the Aardvarks keeper saved with a diving swat.

St. Mary’s next good look at a go-ahead opportunity occurred early in the second 10-minute overtime period, when Ibixica Alvarez was fouled just outside the box to give the Crusaders an indirect kick. Their set piece was a thing of beauty, with Maddie Wheelock crossing in front of the ball before tearing into the box as Alvarez screened the closest defender. But the pass to a wide-open Wheelock was a little too hard and the OES keeper scooped it up before Wheelock could run it down.

St. Mary’s looked dead in the water after the Aardvarks scored two quick goals in the first 11 minutes, but the Crusaders’ chances appeared to go from bleak to downright hopeless after Ford’s right-foot strike in the 22nd made it 3-0.

Facing a team that had allowed only eight goals all season heading into the game, St. Mary’s changed the course of the game in the 25th when Wheelock redirected Meghan Michels’ free kick inside the box to make it 3-1.

“I think even though we were still down 3-1, it really got us fired up,” Wheelock said. “I was wide open and I knew where the goalie was, so I just redirected the ball. I thought it might throw her off and it just slipped into the corner.”

About 10 minutes later the Crusaders struck again when Michels split two defenders in the box to create enough space for a clean shot that made it 3-2.

About five minutes later Emma Bennion ran under a rainbow pass from Wheelock, chested the ball to her feet then sent a looping chip shot that sailed over the keeper and under the crossbar for a stunning equalizer.

The Crusaders came through with their second stoppage-time goal moments later, when Michels, who had a hat trick, packed an angled free kick from the 10 just inside the far post to make it 4-3.

“The beginning of the game we were kind of getting on each other,” Michels said. “Once we scored that first goal our attitudes changed, we were positive and we played the best game of one-two touches we could play. Once our attitudes switched it made a world of difference and we were able to connect and to play as one.”

“I am so impressed with the courage that the girls showed in coming back from a 3-0 deficit,” St. Mary’s coach Dave Potter said.

After Finley’s goal in the 51st made it 4-4, the Aardvarks reclaimed the lead in the 67th when Sophie Chen booted a shot just over the outstretched hands of St. Mary’s keeper Olivia Lippert.

Michels tied it back up in the 75th with a sensational individual effort. She back-tapped and spun away from a defender to get free at about the 30, hesitated for an instant then blew past another defender before firing a sharp-angled shot past the keeper and just inside the far post.

“I like to be humble but that last goal I scored to tie it up was one of the most amazing goals, I think,” Michels said. “It was so fulfilling to get my team to that overtime. Cherry on top.”

Most of the Crusaders who were on the field fell to their knees as the final whistle blew. Wheelock said for her, the loss won’t spoil a memorable run and a great comeback.

“I’m just so proud of how we played,” she said. “We were down 3-0 in the very beginning of the game, and the way we came back is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in any soccer game.”

“Best season I’ve ever contributed to,” Michels added. “These girls are amazing. The positivity, the attitudes, the friendships, the sisterhood. Best team I’ve ever played on.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com

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