GREENE — It’s been 16 years since Unatego’s girls qualified for the state soccer tournament, but the Spartans are going back thanks in large part to a suffocating defense and a goal that crossed the line by inches.
On a cool Friday night that proved that winter can’t be far away, sophomore Torri Halaquist slipped a shot past Elmira Notre Dame keeper Sheridan Heine with 21 minutes, 13 seconds left in the first half as the top-seeded Spartans advanced with a 1-0 victory in the Section Four Class C title game.
“I’m so proud of these girls because they worked so hard,” Spartans coach Sue Herodes said of her 18-0-1 squad, which will play the Section Three champion in a Class C state quarterfinal Nov. 10 at a Syracuse-area site. “I’ve had two of these girls since the eighth grade and we have eight seniors, and they’ve earned this.”
One of the those girls who’s been with Herodes for five years is senior Sarah Mannina, and she played a big role in setting up Halaquist’s goal.
Mannina had possession on the right side and beat Crusaders defender Brittany Schutrum before sending a pass across the box. Halaquist got inside her defender on the left side of the box and struck a low shot to the near post. Heine made a diving effort and appeared to have it saved, but the ball slid under her and trickled toward the goal line. It just got over as a Crusaders defender cleared it.
“I knew she was going to cross it because she had a bad angle,” Halaquist said of Mannina’s pass. “I just had to get ball side of my defender. ... I was going low (on the shot) because I know those are the hardest for the goalie to get.”
Added Mannina: “Elmira Notre Dame is really fast getting back and knew their weakside was open, so I just tried to clear it across and (Halaquist) was open. I don’t really care who scores as long as we get it in there. I just try to find the open person.”
So often in past years, the Spartans have seen their seasons end with losses to END.
“It’s awesome,” Mannina said. “I’ve been on the varsity the last five years and Elmira Notre Dame always seems to be the team that knocks us out. This year was finally our year and we did it.”
Unatego senior goalie Robin Foster earned her 17th shutout of the season but was rarely tested as Spartans defenders limited END to four shots. Her most difficult save came with 15 minutes left, when she rushed out of the goal to deny a semi-breakaway.
“Defensively, this team has been outstanding,” Herodes said of a back line that has permitted three goals this season. “Katrina Clark, we put her on (END leading scorer Hannah Haskell) and she did a phenomenal job. (Haskell) didn’t get many looks at all. I don’t think she had a shot on goal. (Clark is) extremely smart and has endurance that goes on forever.”
Unatego controlled play for most of the night and could have a couple more goals if not for some quality saves by Heine. Twice in the second half she made saves on Mariah Scott.
The first came with 27 minutes left. Scott drove a shot from 25 yards that seemed ticketed for the far post, but Heine made a leaping save near the left post. Then with 10 minutes to go, Scott took a point-blank shot from 10 yards that Heine snared.
“We had to move the ball, we had to change fields and exploit the opposite side, and the girls did that today,” Herodes said. “They have a lot of speed and they shot a lot of our flank play down, but we had them moving.”
Unatego’s only outright sectional championship came in 1996. The Spartans tied Lansing in the 1999 Class C final but lost in a penalty-kick shootout.
Rob Centorani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 607-432-1000, ext. 209.