RACHEL — A county rivalry seeped in the do-or-die stakes of the sectional playoffs through the years exploded when East Fairmont and North Marion collided in a regular season matchup on Tuesday that somehow trumped all those previous postseason meetings.
“I’ll tell you what, since the sectional (final) game against West (in 2017), this is the best game we played since then,” East Fairmont coach Eric Wright said Tuesday. “And that (West) game was the best game I’ve ever been involved with. This is second.”
The game had everything — gritty 50-50 battles, outstanding individual efforts across the board, differing competitive ideologies, and most importantly, a thrilling finish highlighted by a pinpoint 35-yard free kick goal by Huskies star midfielder Aeriss Efaw to break a 2-2 tie in the 78th minute to cinch the home victory for North Marion.
“I practice that all the time, it’s my favorite kick,” Efaw said of her game-winning dime, the second of two scores she had in the game.
The goal was the coda to an all-time tale of back-and-forth play between the two squads, with North going up 1-0 in the 20th minute and 2-1 in the 58th minute before the Lady Bees battled back on both occasions.
“It’s just the rivalry. It’s just how it’s played,” said Efaw of Tuesday’s 80-minute battle which was flush with physical play in tight spaces and read-and-react fluidity in the open field that was at the crux of the contest’s competitive allure.
The Huskies are engineered to play in space as a band of speedy and adroit ball handlers and passers who prefer an up-tempo, counter-heavy style that originates from the backline and glides through each level, catching a defense off-kilter as it plays through the middle and wide to the flanks. East Fairmont, by contrast, oozed a possession-based approach of tallying 50-50 wins and first touches to sop up a possession advantage.
The Bees curtailed NMHS’s finesse with body bumps, arm bars, defense angles and, most critically, non-stop motors that equated to multiple efforts possession to possession. And the Huskies met EFHS’s physicality, by poking at dribbles, vacuuming up second touches and enduring the grind to prevail.
“This was an in-county, conference rivalry that had two really good teams that just came to fight,” Wright said. “And what I saw was our team play the best game we’ve played as far as energy, possession, every aspect of the game.”
“I’m not trying to brag, but I thought we were more in shape than them,” Efaw said. “They had to shift back and forth because we run so much.”
North Marion’s nimble and rapid pace anchored by the trio of Efaw, Karlie Denham and Mary Elliott and accentuated by the long strides of Megan Higgins and Kaleigh Eddy on the outside, was a threat lying in the wake for East Fairmont’s defense. But for the better portion of the first half, East Fairmont’s indefatigable sort of ruggedness foiled the Huskies’ free-flowing game.
Even without senior midfielder and captain Stevee Brock, who had the flu, East Fairmont attained an early possession advantage with Becky Buchanan, Lilly Miller, Makayla Comas, Hope Rogers and freshmen McKenzie Moyer and Maddie Lott challenging for every goal kick, every awry pass, every dislodged dribble. And the backline of Morgan Gaskill, Kaylee Kenney, Tatum Oates and Rylee Church pressed up to push the action toward North’s end.
“I would say for 30 of the first 40 minutes, they outplayed us,” North Marion coach Nelson Elliott said of the Bees. “They had a chip on their shoulder because they knew they were a man or two down, and I think Eric had a great a game plan.”
The center of Wright’s tactics was based on limiting Efaw and her ability to self-create, with the Bees man-marking Efaw all game, sometimes with multiple defenders.
The constant badgering by East’s middies and backline hemmed in North’s attacks, with the Huskies registering just two shots in the first half and none in the game’s first 20 minutes, while the Bees ran up six first-half shots.
But the quick-hitting traits of the Huskies struck in the 20th minute when North Marion squeezed a ball to Higgins out wide on the flank who then crossed it into the box and drew a handball violation on the Bees. A moment later, Efaw was squeaking the ensuing penalty kick past EFHS star goalkeeper Myleena Starsick for a 1-0 lead.
The Bees continued to control the game’s flow for much of the first half, which was at least partially owed to Starsick’s nuanced understanding of how to contort a game to her team’s will in the net, Elliott said.
“Myleena, she’s tough,” Elliott said. “She was the difference early in the game. Our few futile shots we had early, she just gobbled them up.”
“Myleena is definitely the best goalie I’ve played against,” Efaw said. “In high school, she’s the best and I say that confidently.”
Yet, despite EFHS owning distinctive advantages in nearly every department across the board, the Bees still trailed 1-0 at the half.
Buchanan ensured, however, that deficit didn’t hold for long to begin the second half. The Bees’ burgeoning sophomore forward turned in a spectacular effort in the half’s opening minutes when she worked a give-and-go on a run down the middle, bullied her way into the 18-yard box, fended off multiple NMHS defenders and fired on a contested shot that just missed wide. But a few minutes later, she wouldn’t be deterred, swiping up a ball poked loose by Lott, setting and firing from 30 yards out on a perfectly placed ball that just crested the gloves of NMHS keeper Abby Masters in the 43rd minute.
But after North’s backline of seasoned veterans in Mayson Elza, Kayla Hoy and Kaleigh Mock as well as youthful fighters in Olivia Toland, Audrie Menas and Raquel Taylor had withstood East’s constant bludgeoning into the NMHS third in the first half, they finally got relief thereafter in the second.
“Our defenders we rotate all the time, they played very well,” Elliott said. “There were a couple of switches we practice and they just executed them perfectly.”
Suddenly, East’s ownership of 50-50 was being contended, the possession game started shifting, and the Huskies started smacking the Bees’ with flurries of quick hitters.
“It’s ebbs and flows,” Elliott said of the game. “It’s a little bit due to confidence because when you start playing well, you get even more confidence, and I thought, especially in the second half, we played on their end way more.”
An NMHS ball reversal saw Denham threaten for a goal on a run before East’s Church angled it off in the 49th minute. A moment later Denham flirted with a goal again before Starsick snatched a ball in mid air. A free kick by Elza from 30 yards sailed high, and a would’ve-been go-ahead goal by Higgins on the backside of a deflected free kick entry was wiped away for offsides in the 56th minute.
But finally in the 58th minute, North Marion cracked the Bees’ defenses, with Denham running down a longball on the sideline and weaving against the grain of EFHS’s backline for a clean shot from the right wing to the net’s far corner. A lunging Starsick went all out to bat it away, but the rebound found Higgins on the backside for a the goal and a 2-1 lead.
Back-to-back NMHS shots thereafter were saved by Starsick and drilled off the crossbar, respectively, as North continued to pepper the net as the Huskies outshot the Bees 7-3 in the second half.
The Bees were yielding to NMHS’s deluge of attacks, but with just under four minutes to play, they summoned one last surge. After a tic-tac-toe through ball setup by the Bees was intercepted by NMHS’s Toland, EFHS’s Moyer stole the ball right back to put the Huskies’ backline on their heels. Following a pass out wide to Lott, the Bees’ freshman teed it up on the move and let loose, powering through Masters’ outstretched mits for the tying goal with 2:45 to play.
But on a day when Efaw’s dribbles were swamped, her lanes clogged up, and her body a battering ram for feisty East Fairmont defenders, the Huskies’ star still had one final bullet in the barrel. And following an EFHS foul that gave her a free kick from the 35-yard line, she pulled the trigger and hit a dead-to-right bullseye that capped an unforgettable game with an everlasting moment.