It came down to a shoot-out, but it was exactly as the Pioneers had planned.
“It was amazing. It ended up exactly how we planned it,” Kurt Standbridge said. “We actually practiced [penalty kicks] before the game. We had every girl kick three on our keeper so she got used to the PKs and then we watched all the kickers and kept track of who went 3-for-3.”
Standbridge, the Croswell-Lexington girls soccer head coach, has been at the helm of the program since 2020. In that time, his teams have never won a postseason game. In fact, the Pioneers hadn’t won a district game since 2017 when they beat Caro 4-0.
But Thursday night, that changed as they defeated Port Huron 3-1 in the Division 2, District 25 quarterfinal.
“It honestly meant a lot,” senior Natalie Yankee said. “Just playing these past four years, we haven’t really gone very far, so just getting to this moment is so good.”
Junior Kelsey Coombs put the Pioneers on the board in the first half with a 1-0 lead, but Port Huron tied the game in the second. Unlike the regular season, the game couldn’t end in a tie, so it went into overtime. But even that wasn’t enough to decide the winner.
“It was really exciting and definitely motivating, it kind of picked up the team a little bit, saying we can do this,” Coombs said of her goal.
As the teams prepared for their penalty kicks, junior keeper Eliza Nelson approved her coach’s five-player lineup, with one exception: Charlotte Duda. This came as a surprise as Duda, a junior, hadn’t seen the field all game.
“I looked at who most often puts it on net, who can get it the air when they put it on net,” Nelson said.
After having defended the net against each of her teammates in practice, Nelson said she had confidence in Duda, and rightly so as she made the game-deciding goal.
Nelson blocked Port Huron’s first shot, and Coombs missed first for the Pioneers. Port Huron then missed its next two goals, while Yankee and Duda each successfully netted the ball, securing the district victory.
“I’m just glad Eliza really came through during that time, and during the game,” Coombs said. “She had really, really good saves.”
“I didn’t want to do a shoot-out. It ended up being OK, but I never want to do it again. It’s all on me, normally it’s 11 versus 11, but now it’s just me versus whomever they choose from the other team, and I feel like that’s just not fair,” Nelson said with a laugh.
With Nelson in the net, however, Standbridge wouldn’t mind another shoot-out.
“That girl has got ice in her veins, I swear. She’s incredible,” he said. “This is probably biased, but she’s probably the best keeper in the BWAC. Sadly we don’t keep stats like we should, like how many saves she’s getting, but not only does she have a high quantity of saves, her quality of saves is even better than anybody else.”
While the Pioneers may have finished with 3-10-1 conference record, they’ve seen great improvement in the second half of the season. In the first round of games against BWAC opponents, they let up 34 goals, but in the second they cut back to just 16, including a shutout against Armada when they won 1-0.
Realizing his team’s potential, Standbridge said he made a change in his coaching style midway through the season.
“I started holding them accountable because I knew they could play better soccer than they were playing," he said. "They’ve taken it great and they love being held accountable and knowing that someone thinks they can do better.
“They’ve been having so much fun together these last three weeks that they’re finally playing soccer, it’s amazing.”
And they’re not ready to be done yet.
The Pioneers will play St. Clair in the district semifinal on Tuesday, May 30 at 6 p.m. in North Branch. Should they win, they’ll play the winner between Imlay City and Marysville.
For in-game updates and other news, follow Calli on Twitter @ newberry_calli
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