Knights come up short of state berth
For a few seconds, Steele girls soccer coach Justin Linthicum was flustered as he gathered his thoughts and parced his words.
The Knights had collected their belongings and exited Blossom Athletic Center moments earlier, a dream season ended a step sooner than hoped. And now, Linthicum was tasked with juggling the joy of a landmark campaign and the heartbreak of it ending, while trying to console those who played their final game and turning an eye to the future.
“It stings,” Linthicum said. “This one stings. The seniors let these young ladies know, immediately, what the expectation was, and that we were going to do something that this program has never done before — and we did.”
Austin Vandegrift, though, is no stranger to playing at this time of the year. And that experience was integral as the Vipers defeated Steele 2-0 Saturday in the Region IV-6A championship match.
Vandegrift (19-1-4) becomes the first non-area team to win the region since Austin Bowie defeated Austin Westlake in 2010. Johnson (2011, 2013), Churchill (2012), Reagan (2014, 2015) and MacArthur (2016) has each won regional titles since.
“We have a lot of playoff experience,” said Vandegrift coach Jen Hardy, who estimated she had five players who have played in two state-title games and nearly a dozen who have played in one. “It definitely makes a difference in our mentality, being able to stay calm. I think it has an huge impact.”
The Vipers won the 5A state title in 2014, were state finalists in 2015 and regional finalists a year ago before being bumped up during the UIL’s biennial realignment and reclassification in February 2016. The change did little to slow down Vandegrift, which knocked off Lee, Reagan, Clemens and Steele during the playoffs.
“There was definitely a mental game to approach at the very beginning of the season,” said Hardy, a former Kerrville Tivy assistant coach, of changing classifications. “We made sure all of our preseason opponents were (6A schools), so we knew right off the bat what to be prepared for.”
It is a concept Linthicum hopes for Steele. With a roster that included 14 sophomores and freshmen, the Knights (18-2-2) might be on the cusp of authoring a Vandegrift-like run of their own.
“This was a senior-heavy team, but at the same time we started five freshmen today in the regional final against a state champion team,” Linthicum said after his team had a 19-match unbeaten streak snapped and lost for the first time since Jan. 6, a 2-1 decision to Vandegrift at the National Elite Prep Showcase in Fort Worth. “I told the girls afterward, ‘We’re going to be back. We’re going to be back.’ We have a strong, young core.”
Vandegrift broke open a scoreless game at halftime, scoring twice in 26 minutes. Afrah Khan scored the game-winner in the 43rd minute, running onto a ball near the end line, turning to her right and curving a left-footed shot just inside the right post. Holly Streber added an insurance goal in the 69th minute.
The Vipers, relying on their depth and possession game, milked away the rest of the time to keep Steele at bay.
“We knew that we could compete with them,” said Steele senior forward CaLeigha Callahan, who signed with Houston. “We knew we just had to come out and work hard and leave it all on the field. We were doing good the first half, and then just …”