Freedom advances as runner-up
By Kyle LoJacono
The first three meetings ever between the Steinbrenner and Freedom girls soccer teams ended in ties, so it seemed inevitable the squads would need more than 80 minutes to decide the Class 4A-District 8 champion.
The No. 1 seeded Warriors (15-3-2) got the better of the No. 2 Patriots (12-4-2) thanks to a double overtime goal by freshman Remi Brantley with less than 2 minutes left in the second overtime, her first career goal.
“I was feeling excitement,” Brantley said. “I was just like what the heck is going on because I’m hitting it with my left foot, it curved in the corner — when it went in it was amazing.”
Brantley didn’t get a huge amount of playing time in the contest, subbing in for 8 minutes when Jessica Taylor hurt her left ankle in the second half.
Brantley entered again when Taylor reinjured her ankle with 4:37 remaining in the second overtime and buried home a cross from Marley Opila to secure the program’s third district crown.
“She’s aggressive,” said Steinbrenner coach Robert Woodard. “She’s the player that no one wants to play against in practice. … There’s no better kid on the team; no better human being.”
The Warriors scored first in the 35th minute when Taylor Valley got past Freedom goalkeeper Emily Ball. The Patriots answered 9 minutes after halftime when Alyssa Daniello hit home a rebound off a free kick taken by Alessandra Diioia.
Both defenses and goalkeepers made key stops to send the game to overtime. Emily had 14 saves, four in overtime. Steinbrenner defender Miranda Gonzalez blocked two shots to save sure goals and used her speed to force attackers off the ball.
“Coming into this game I just said I can’t let anybody past me; I can’t let anybody score,” Gonzalez said. “I told myself I have to put my heart and my body on the line and do everything I can to keep the ball out of the net.”
Woodard said the play of Gonzalez and goalkeeper Stephanie Hirsch is what allowed them to push forward for the winning goal.
Hirsch finished with six saves despite being forced from the game for 2 minutes after hitting the left side of her face on the goalpost while trying to stop Daniello’s goal. She did the same thing in the Warriors’ regular season finale against Bloomingdale.
“My team comes first,” said Hirsch, who passed a trainer-administered concussion test. “I will break three ribs and a leg to go save a ball for my team. My teammates are my family and I love them.”
Woodard called Hirsch “the ultimate warrior” for her efforts.
Freedom coach Jenna Ball said her players would have liked to have hoisted their third straight district title but are happy to be in the playoffs.
“We both came out tonight and laid it all out on the field,” Jenna said. “It’s just unfortunate it had to end like that. I know how badly my girls wanted it. … I’m proud of them. I think tonight proved they can handle any team.”
The third district title in Steinbrenner’s three-year history was more difficult to claim than the first two.
The Warriors had dominated the last two years in their old district, winning all 17 games by a combined score of 141-1. Freedom, the tournament host, and the other 4A-8 teams offered a much tougher challenge.
“We knew it would be a lot harder to beat Freedom,” Miranda said. “We knew it would be tough, but we knew we had to. It was a lot more work to win it and a lot more excitement when we won.”
The Patriots needed overtime and penalty kicks to get past Wiregrass Ranch (17-5) in the semifinals on Jan. 18 after ending regulation tied 1-1. Freedom scored when Jenna Stiling found her twin sister Leah in the first half. The Bulls answered in the second half when Berlin Waters buried home her own rebound.
The Patriots pulled out the victory 5-4 in penalty kicks, with Dana Jones converting the final attempt.
Steinbrenner defeated Gaither (6-9-1) 2-0 in the other semifinal contest. The Warriors got a pair of goals from Valley to secure the win.