APEX — With one swing of her booming left leg, Panther Creek’s Courtney Cash unlocked Middle Creek’s stout defense Wednesday night.
After a scoreless first half, Cash broke the deadlock 29 seconds into the second half to ignite the Catamounts’ 3-0 win against the Mustangs and put them within reach of the SWAC 4A championship.
Coming out of the break, Cash expected the goals to come for the Catamounts, but not that fast.
“But I’m glad it did, though,” the senior midfielder said. “We all had confidence on the ball, and we knew we could put it in. It was just a matter of time.”
Panther Creek (14-0-1) was all over the Mustangs in the first half. It took 11 shots (five on target), but Middle Creek goalkeeper Abby Coffey stood tall and turned away all five chances. Perhaps the Catamounts were too eager looking for their first goal: They were caught offsides six times in the first 40 minutes.
But that all changed from the opening whistle to start the second half. Panther Creek defender Christina Moore took over the ball in Middle Creek’s end and spotted Cash on the right flank. Cash cut the ball to her left and carried it to top of the area before smashing her shot into the near side netting.
Three minutes later, Cash received the ball deep in Middle Creek’s end. She again looked toward goal, but she was chopped down in the area, leading to Briana Velasquez’s penalty kick and a 2-0 lead.
“We struggle to find the net at times, but once we find the net, it just opens up and builds our confidence,” said Panther Creek coach David Grant.
During halftime, Grant instructed his midfielders to make quicker decisions. The Mustangs conceded space in the middle, and throughout the first half, the Catamounts dribbled into that space and left their forwards little room to move off the ball. So in the second half, the midfielders were instructed to either shoot if they had space or play the ball in to the forwards sooner.
“They did that,” Grant said. “We went right at it. The more we are aggressive, the more dangerous we are.”
Mazzy Sullivan knocked in the Catamounts’ third goal in the 55th minute. She poked the ball into the net after she came away from a scrum in front of Middle Creek’s goal.
Panther Creek goalkeeper Celese Barnard wasn’t called on often, but she was up to the task both times in the second half. Twice in the span of five minutes, Barnard smothered a pair of chances from Middle Creek’s Katie Weisner, helping to keep Panther Creek’s seventh shutout of the season.
Panther Creek heads into Monday’s home match against second-place Fuquay-Varina with a chance to clinch the league title. A win against the Bengals would put the Catamounts 10 points clear at the top of the table with three games remaining in the regular season.
“We’ve got a beat-up old shed at our place, where we nailed up our goals for the season,” Grant said. “Winning conference was a part of that. ... I did the math today, I’m not going to lie. Monday night should be good.”