Columbia High girls soccer coach Jamey Bridges doesn’t hesitate to use a freshman at the varsity level and the approach paid off Tuesday.
Freshman forward Chloe Graff scored two goals, one in the first half from junior defender Kalee Jackson and another in the second half from freshman defender Jenna Jackson, and sophomore Megan LeBlanc also scored as the top-seeded Eagles blanked the sixth-seeded Wesclin Warriors 3-0 in the semifinals of the Class 1A Columbia Regional.
“She was big,” Bridges said of Graff, who has seven goals. “She’s a great player.”
One of several that have the Eagles (13-5-2) one win away from the regional championship. They will play fourth-seeded Freeburg (10-9-1) in the title game at 6 p.m. Friday.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
The Midgets defeated fifth-seeded Harrisburg 4-0 in the other semifinal as senior Emilie Blomenkamp scored three goals to give her 18 this season. Senior Hannah Lehman also scored for Freeburg.
Columbia defeated visiting Freeburg 4-2 in the teams’ only other meeting April 11.
One of the Eagles’ keys this season has been their balance on offense. They have five players that have scored between five and 13 goals.
“It’s definitely not just me doing it. It’s a team effort,” Graff said of the Eagles’ tendency to spread the wealth. “I always get worried, like, ‘You’ve got to hit it right.’ (But) you’ve just got to focus and play as a team and (results) will be positive.”
Columbia scored the only goal it needed when Jenna Jackson crossed a pass into the box from the right side and Graff volleyed it into the net from 6 yards away at 8 minutes, 16 seconds.
The Eagles then endured some finishing issues, as freshman Sophia Bonaldi twice shot high in the first two-plus minutes of the second half. Freshman Fae Harrell and junior Blair Wittenbrink also misfired during a five-minute stretch.
But Graff came to the rescue again at 60:16, scoring in the box off a strong throw-in from the right side by Jenna Jackson. Graff miskicked the ball once, but it caromed off a Warriors player and came right back to Graff, who finished in front of the left post.
“It kind of bounced a little bit, I kicked it and it hit the (Wesclin) girl,” Graff said. “I was like, ‘I’ve got to get to this one now,’ so I hit it and it went inside the near post.”
LeBlanc’s goal came with five seconds to play. After the Eagles cleared a Wesclin shot off the line, senior Kenzie Lowe got the ball to LeBlanc, who raced down the field and scored as Warriors freshman keeper Kaylee Thayer was backpedaling trying to defend the play. Thayer had come to near midfield when Wesclin was threatening Columbia’s goal.
Bridges, in his first season, sensed that his players might have become frustrated until finally pulling away with two goals in the final 19 minutes.
“Adding to the frustration is we had two goals called back,” Bridges said. “Even though we were frustrated, we didn’t feel threatened. We felt like we just needed to keep doing what we know to do and possess the ball and we would be fine.”
Senior Alison Riddle had the shutout in goal for the Eagles, her 12th of the season.
The Warriors (11-7) played well in defeat despite not mounting much of an offensive push. Sophomore Claire Gruenke narrowly missed wide left in the 71st minute before Wesclin’s final flurry in the moments before LeBlanc’s goal.
“They’re a strong team and we played a defensive formation,” Wesclin coach Terry Calvert said. “We tried to hold them off. When it got to 20 minutes left in the game, we knew it was time to go. We put some pressure on and got great opportunities. If the ball bounces a different way, maybe we get a goal and it changes everything.
“We missed our opportunities. They made their opportunities. That’s the game.”
The Warriors will graduate just one senior in midfielder Mary Hagarty.
Althoff 7, Massac County 0
The second-seeded Crusaders (10-8-2) rolled to a 5-0 halftime lead and were never in danger as they defeated the eighth-seeded Patriots in the semifinals of the Anna-Jonesboro Regional.
Seniors Shannon Maitland and Anna Hanger scored two goals apiece for Althoff. Sophomore Sophie Monken, junior Amanda Kaltwasser and freshman Emelia O’Neill had one goal apiece.
“We could have scored more,” Huettner said. “They came out and played a deep defensive line. They just kind of set back and let us do all the work.”
Maitland, a Mississippi recruit, has seven goals in her last four games since Crusaders coach Juergen Huettner moved her from defender to forward.
“It gives us more quality scoring opportunities,” said Huettner, who starts alongside sophomore Jessica Hoffman. “Since we’ve made this change, it’s been good for us.”
The Crusaders will play third-seeded Gibault or seventh-seeded Anna-Jonesboro in the championship game, which will be played Friday night or Saturday morning. Gibault and Anna-Jonesboro meet in the other semifinal at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Mater Dei 7, Olney 0
In the Central Regional in Breese, the Knights (10-9-2) advanced to the championship game with a blowout victory over the Tigers as senior Melanie Mensing scored four goals.
Abby Arentsen, Macey Endres and Laura Faust also scored for the second-seeded Knights, who will meet third-seeded Central or sixth-seeded Salem in the title game at 4:30 p.m. Friday. Central and Salem meet in the other semifinal at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The top-seeded Marquette Explorers (10-9-3) had no difficulty reaching the championship game as they pummeled the ninth-seeded Metro-East Lutheran Knights 9-0 in the semifinals of the Marquette Regional at Gordon Moore Park.
Marquette will play fourth-seeded Roxana in the championship game at 4:30 p.m. Friday. Roxana drubbed Father McGivney 7-0 in the other semifinal Tuesday.