Cards raising the bar
Union Academy has already had the best girls soccer season in school history, and has a chance to build on that success tonight.
The Cardinals (14-4-1), ranked fourth in the state among 1A schools by eurosportscoreboard.com, host second-ranked Lake Norman Charter (15-3-3) starting at 7 p.m.
The Cards are in the 1A state quarterfinal round for the third time in four years, but have never made the semifinals.
Last Friday, Union Academy handed top-ranked Gray Stone Day (17-1) its first loss of the season with a 1-0 overtime victory, and at the same time broke the school record for wins in a season.
"Anytime you win a playoff game, especially in overtime, it's always exciting," said UA coach Suzanne O'Dell. "To beat a team that has gone the entire season without losing makes it extra sweet."
Freshman Anna Sidders scored the only goal off an assist from sophomore co-captain Nikki Torres.
The Cardinals play a lot of underclassmen.
They list six freshmen and six sophomores on the roster — compared to just five seniors.
Torres spearheads the offense with 15 goals and eight assists, while freshman Linsey Starnes has 11 goals and three assists.
"We count on a lot of freshmen and sophomores," O'Dell said. "We put a lot of emphasis on improving individually every time we play. We want to keep getting better throughout the season."
The Cards put an emphasis on ball-control offense and team defense. The result has been 10 shutouts this season.
Sophomore Shelby McVicker got the complete-game shutout in goal against Gray Stone Day, but normally splits time with senior Christie Parker.
O'Dell believes in protecting the goal with numbers.
"Team defense is our strength," O'Dell said. "We couldn't just rely on our back four. We require them to play defense even if they're a forward or a midfielder.
"Keeping possession of the ball is the best defense. We want them to use their skill to possess the ball and not panic. We want them to really play soccer, to feel the rhythm of the game."
The Cardinals have won both playoff games by one goal. O'Dell believes a challenging schedule, which has included eight matches against teams ranked in the state, has helped prepare the team for the postseason.
"It helps tremendously to play the schedule we have," O'Dell said. "There aren't going to be a lot of 1A teams better than Cuthertson or tougher than Piedmont. Both those teams are extremely tough and both prepared us for where we are now. We're used to being banged around and uncomfortable. We have to work hard in every game in the conference and I think that process has really allowed the girls to gain some mental toughness."
Offensively, 14 players have scored at least one goal this season.
"We don't have any stars," O'Dell said. "We have some skill and talent, but as far as scoring goals we've had a lot of different players contribute this season."
O'Dell wasn't sure what to expect this season with such a youthful roster. The Cardinals finished 7-8-1 the year before and lost in the second round of the playoffs.
She likes their work habits and commitment.
"It's wonderful to be a part of this team," she said. "We've accomplished a lot of firsts and I think these girls have learned you can accomplish a lot with hard work and teamwork. I'm happy for them but we can't stop here. We've still got work to do."
Girls soccer playoffs
Northeast Guilford at Weddington, late
Today's third-round playoff games
Lake Norman Charter (15-3-3) at Union Academy (14-4-1)
West Stokes (16-4-3) at Cuthbertson (17-2-4)
Marvin Ridge (17-3) at Charlotte Catholic (18-2-3)
Hough (18-2) at Sun Valley (17-4-1)