CONYERS — No one, not even head coach Blair Barksdale, could anticipate her Patriots scoring three first-half goals.
But they did.
With five back in defense for the Patriots in the final 25 minutes, including Gracie Wilson, the team’s single-season record holder for goals, Barksdale was left stunned again, this time with their fourth and final goal off a counter attack seemingly started from nothing.
Executing their game plan to perfection, four goals were more than enough to take care of No. 10 ranked Pope 4-1, who after getting down early, allowed the Patriots to capitalize on their many in-game frustrations and cruise to their first Final Four appearance in 17 years.
The win also gives the Patriots (17-3-1) a school record 17 wins after previously reaching 16 in 2001, 2012 and last week against Valdosta.
“We told them that as long as we get out front first, I think we have it,” Barksdale said. “That was our whole game plan all week. Jump out, get ahead and just defend. That’s what we did.”
Wilson, who did not score on the night, was as surprised as the rest when watching teammates Jada Milner, Morgan Baker and Hayley Benjamin help give the Patriots a 3-0 halftime lead.
“I believe in my team all the way, but we did not expect that,” Wilson said. “We played them sophomore year and they knocked us out 3-1. We watched film and were so prepared for this game. I’m so proud of my team for taking all of the tools that we have and beating them down.”
With several dangerous looks for the Greyhounds in the opening 10 minutes, they had nothing to show for it.
The Patriots swarming defense comprised of freshman Jazmin Ferguson, sophomore Rylee Breese and junior Mady Cox helped slow down Pope forwards Nicole Icen and Caroline Tully, who let their emotions run high as the match played on.
Heritage, however, did not squander its early opportunities to score and quickly capitalized in the 15th minute.
A goal kick from Ferguson found the head of Wilson, who in one motion, managed to flick a header up field to Milner. The junior gathered the ball before beating freshman defender Ashlinn Laverty. With only the Pope goalkeeper to beat, Milner chipped the ball off her fingertips and into the back of the net for the opening score.
“Jada took it all the way,” Barksdale said. “It was amazing. They’ve worked all season on this. We focused on the shooting and they executed just like they should.”
From Wilson’s perspective, Milner’s run and strike was as good as advertised.
“That ball came from Jazmin and all I could do was flick it,” Wilson said. “I tell my forwards every time, look for it. Jada was right on it and it was perfectly executed.”
Four minutes later, Pope came within inches of knotting the game at 1-all.
A run down the right side of the field from Tully was gathered wonderfully from the senior, but was unable to beat Patriots goalkeeper Cameron Risk, who used her right foot to save a sure-fire goal.
The second missed opportunity from the Greyhounds proved costly.
In the 29th minute, Baker gave the Patriots a 2-0 lead, sending the home bench and stands into a frenzy.
With Pope continuing to fire shots in the Patriots’ final third, none could find the frame. Icen was on the receiving end of three great passes in front of goal, but missed all three shots. Two of her three misses sailed high, through the football goalposts.
With 5:23 remaining, A third Tully run down the right side of the field looked to be dangerous after the senior gathered possession 30 yards away from goal. Racing towards Risk, the senior was unable to get a shot attempt off after a 30-yard run from Ferguson led to the freshman clearing the ball out-of-bounds.
“I worried about their key players, but I also worried about just me individually and doing what I had to do,” Ferguson said. “I’ve been playing since I was little and that’s always been in me. When I see a break, I sprint the life out of me and do the best that I can. I’ll slide, I’ll tackle and do the best that I can to get to it.”
An exasperated Greyhounds team was sunk once more in the first half after Benjamin knocked one home with 85 seconds remaining in the first half, handing the Patriots a commanding 3-0 lead heading into the break.
Fourteen minutes into the second half, the Greyhounds got on the board with a penalty kick score, cutting the lead to 3-1. Two corners and two free kicks later, the Pope was knocking on the door of a second goal, but came away with nothing to show for it.
With 17:10 remaining, a Lilly Broersma deep pass to Sanai Moe ended any chance the Greyhounds had of tying the match up.
After gathering the pass from Broersma and turning up field, Moe was given knew life after the Pope keeper whiffed on a clearance, allowing Moe to turn and fire on an empty net, giving the Patriots a 4-1 lead.
Wilson said that outside of a 10-minute stretch in the second half, her team played solid, sound defense all night.
“It was very physical,” Wilson said. “For me, especially, because (Pope) is ginormous. Any hit is hard. But we controlled it. We got a little rough, just frantic, but we controlled it and got back to how we were playing.”
With the win, the Patriots will play host to Dacula next Tuesday after the Falcons cruised past Glynn Academy 6-0.
“Honestly, my goal at the beginning of the season was to get past the Sweet 16,” Wilson said. “Anything past that is just icing on the cake. It’s so amazing, especially with this group of girls. I’ve loved the entire season, all the way through.”