Amid horn blasts from an enthusiastic fan with a vuvuzela and spontaneous bursts of mooing from nearby cattle, the West Limestone girls soccer team scrapped its way on Saturday night to the program’s first playoff victory since its inception in 1999.
Marking their third straight Class 1A-4A state playoff appearance, the No. 7 Wildcats (15-2-1) took advantage of junior striker Jessica Hutchinson’s hat trick to power past Madison County 3-1 on a slick and muddy field at James Kennemer Stadium.
Hutchinson gave West an early 1-0 advantage by coolly converting a penalty kick midway through the first half.
“I wasn’t nervous because I just thought about how I was ready to take the shot and make it,” Hutchinson said.
Madison County controlled possession early but struggled to find quality shots against West defenders Sarah Easter, Laura Easter, Anna Harper Gowan and Leahgrace Simons. Keeper Krislynn Berzett had six saves, including a spectacular stop in the second half when she came off her line quickly to prevent a point-blank shot from one player and deflected the ball away from two others.
Madison County (6-10) broke through with less than 30 seconds remaining until halftime when the Tigers used a quick counterattack. Freshman Courtney Mitchell evaded two defenders on the left side and slotted a low, close-range shot to the right of Berzett, who has 13 shutouts and a 0.72 goals-against average this season.
In the second half, West consistently won possession and invaded the Tigers’ defensive half as Hutchinson sprung loose with a left-footed goal off an Allison Martin pass to put the Wildcats ahead 2-1 in the 53rd minute.
In the 60th minute, Anna Harper Gowan left the game for several minutes after being shaken up during a violent collision at midfield. The naturally right-footed Hutchinson responded with a run across the face of the goal toward the left sideline, and guided a lefty strike into the right-corner netting for a 3-1 lead.
“I thought we needed one more goal so we could be ahead by two goals,” Hutchinson said. “I thought No. 33 (Estefani Torres) and No. 13 (Katy Weld) played great, and I’m proud of everybody for the way they played and for doing everything they could to help us win.”
Hutchinson rang up four goals in the season opener against Danville, and leads West with18 goals. Sophomore Anyston Belt has 16 goals, and senior Allison Martin has 11 goals and 14 assists. Belt played despite a nagging lower-leg injury that caused her to leave the match Saturday after making it through the first 73 minutes.
“They just gutted it out today. I’m proud of them for not giving up, being first to the ball and keeping the ball in play,” said West Limestone coach Kerry Gowan. “We did a better job today of keeping the ball under control, and we talked and communicated together as a team.”
West Limestone will play at 6 p.m. at Randolph in Tuesday’s second round. The Raiders advanced to the 1A-4A championship game last year, and eliminated the Wildcats from the playoffs in 2011 and 2012.
West has outscored opponents 56-13 in 18 games, while averaging 3.1 goals a contest.
To view more than 100 photos from the West Limestone-Madison County girls soccer game, click on The News Courier's photo gallery tab on the left side of the website.