Bryant girls edge defending champs, earn return to State final

Photos by Kenzi Brenton

Anna Lowery appeared to be on her way to her second goal of the game. She was two steps ahead of the closest defender approaching the box. But she was hit from behind and tumbled to the ground.

Allison Hughes contends for possession during Saturday's Class 7A State Tournament semifinal. (Photo by Kenzi Brenton)

Allison Hughes contends for possession during Saturday’s Class 7A State Tournament semifinal. (Photo by Kenzi Brenton)

For half a second, Bryant Lady Hornets’ fans held their breath. This had happened to Lowery before and play would just continue. But, this time, in the 75th minute of the Class 7A State Tournament semifinal match against the three-time defending champion Bentonville Lady Tigers, the call was made and a penalty kick was awarded to the Lady Hornets.

“Finally, Anna — bless her heart — that happens to her every game, numerous times and nobody ever gives it to her,” noted Bryant coach Julie Long. “That one, they kind of had to. It was pretty obvious.”

With the white-knuckler of a game deadlocked at 1-1, sophomore Caroline Campbell, on the penalty kick, grounded one past Bentonville keeper Gabby Miller inside the right pole and into the back of the net to give Bryant the lead.

It was the only shot attempt by the Lady Hornets in the entire second half.

Anna Lowery pushes the ball upfield in front of Bentonville's Ana Owens. (Photo by Kenzi Brenton)

Anna Lowery pushes the ball upfield in front of Bentonville’s Ana Owens. (Photo by Kenzi Brenton)

From there, the Lady Hornets worked the clock on offense and staunchly held on defense to close out a victory that sends them to the State championship game next Saturday at the University of Arkansas’ Razorback Field.

It’s a return trip for Bryant. Last year, in fact, it was the Lady Tigers who denied them, 3-2, in the title match. This year, the Lady Hornets will face the Fayetteville Lady Bulldogs who defeated Springdale Har-Ber 1-0 on penalty kicks in a shootout after the two teams had battled for 100 minutes — regulation and two 10-minute overtime periods.

“It doesn’t make up for last year,” Long asserted after her team’s ousting of Bentonville Saturday. “But it is sweet to be able to put them out.

“They’re one of the best teams in the state,” she acknowledged of the Lady Tigers who won the 7A-West Conference. “I told everybody this week that, if we see them in the second round, we could play them 10 times and it would be 5 and 5. I feel like we’re very evenly matched. I told my girls coming into the game, it was going to be whoever wanted it more. I think it showed at the very end that we just kept fighting and really wanted it.”

Britney Sahlmann works the ball up the sideline. (Photo by Kenzi Brenton)

Britney Sahlmann works the ball up the sideline. (Photo by Kenzi Brenton)

The Lady Hornets were saved repeatedly by their own keeper Maddie Hawkins. Less than 24 hours before the start of the contest, Hawkins was wincing in pain and down on the field. She’d been kicked in the back on the left side and had to come out for awhile. But she was able to return before Bryant closed out the 5-2 win over Fort Smith Southside. She finished with three saves in that match.

But, on Saturday, she came through with a whopping seven saves, several of them during a Bentonville barrage to start the second half.

“Our defense played big and Maddie — it was the best I’ve seen her play in four years,” Long said of her senior. “She had a great game. And you think, hey, your keeper doesn’t make that big a difference. This game, she did. She was huge. I couldn’t have asked her to play any better. She did phenomenal.”

The match was tied at 1 at the half. Hawkins had a save at 26:00 of the second on a shot by Bentonville star, McKenzie Dixon. She deflected another shot over the crossbar at 11:03.

At 10:29, the Lady Tigers were awarded a penalty kick but missed. About a minute later, Dixon attacked again only to have Hawkins make yet another save. Off a corner at 7:56, Hawkins added one final save.

Jad'n Nichols (14) outmaneuvers Bentonville's Madilyn Wood. (Photo by Kenzi Brenton)

Jad’n Nichols (14) outmaneuvers Bentonville’s Lauren Holly (18). (Photo by Kenzi Brenton)

“Bentonville came out fired up then they missed a couple,” Long said of the blitz to start the second half. “It was a rollercoaster. I felt like at times, we were in control; at times, they were in control. We did get out of sync on how we play. However, I felt when it came clutch time we did what it took to win. We just thought, hey, we’ve got to do this.

“I felt like our center mids (Allison Hughes and Hadley Dickinson) kind of came out flat,” she said of the start of the second half. “They get gassed. They’re playing 3-v-2 in the middle the whole time out there. They deserve so much credit for this entire season because I demand so much out of them. But, every time, they rise to the occasion. They picked it up and when they start to control it — both of them did a great job.

“It was a very physical game but that’s just the way Bentonville plays,” the coach said. “I knew going into it — I knew how this ref calls it, as well, and I felt like if he was going to let us play, we were going to have to match them physically. We did for the most part. There were times we got shoved off the ball.”

Bryant's Jessica Butler (26) and Bentonville's Anna Passmore (5) sprint after a loose ball. (Photo by Kenzi Brenton)

Bryant’s Jessica Butler (26) and Bentonville’s Anna Passmore (5) sprint after a loose ball. (Photo by Kenzi Brenton)

Lowery gave the Lady Hornets an early lead. Her goal came off an assist by Kendall Selig less than three minutes into the contest.

“Anna came up big twice for us,” Long mentioned. “I always tell her, ‘When you play, we play so much better.’ She’s such a phenomenal player. Having both of those two up top — she gets over-shadowed by Caroline but she likes it that way. She likes to be the passer. She doesn’t like to be the scorer. But today, she stepped up big with the scoring.

“They kind of shut Caroline down but I felt like we had the wraps on McKenzie who’s their big scorer,” she added. “We shut her down.”

Bentonville tied it with a close-range goal with 18:53 left in the half.

But around the 26-minute mark, there was a play that Bryant defender Jad’n Nichols made that was reminiscent of last year’s finals match, turning the tables on the Lady Tigers. On that day in Fayetteville, the Lady Hornets had two shots past the Bentonville keeper who had come out away from in front of the goal. They rolled to lip of the goal-line only to be cleared by Lady Tigers’ defender Morgan Freehling. Big plays in a 3-2 game.

This time, it was Bentonville which had a shot that was rolling toward the goal after Hawkins had pushed out to try to foil an attack. But Nichols was there, just had Freehling had been last year, kicking it away.

In retrospect, it was an early indication that, perhaps, this time it was Bryant’s day.

And sure enough, they knocked out a team that came in having won six State championships in the last eight years.

It’ll be somebody else this time.

“I know it helped us being at home,” Long said of hosting the tourney at Bryant Stadium. “It makes a huge difference. That was one of the reasons I wanted to fight so much to get the bid here.”

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