By Jordan Kroeger, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — It didn’t matter what Charlotte High School kicked at Port Charlotte goalkeeper Grace Stec Monday night.
She always had an answer.
With her hands.
With her feet.
And even her face.
Thanks to Stec’s 15 saves — which included a diving stop off the side her face — and a first-half goal by Cassidy Francis, the Pirates held on to defeat the Tarpons 1-0 at home. Stec and company held off a late surge by Charlotte that saw two free kicks and two corner kicks in the game’s final five minutes.
“She played a heck of a game,” Port Charlotte coach Chip Stec said. “She had a couple of saves in the first half where one went off of the side of her face and then she recovered to make another save. She did a nice job and then Cassidy scored a goal for us there.
“As a unit, I think we played pretty well. It was back and forth. We had a little bit of possession, they had a little bit of possession, they had shots on goal, we had a couple. It looked like they outshot us but you never complain beating your rival in a 1-0 game.”
The elder Stec was right.
Charlotte (5-5-1) outshot Port Charlotte (7-6) 21-19 and dominated the first half, outshooting the Pirates (7-6) 12-5 in the first 40 minutes. But the Tarpons could never stick a ball passed Stec, who saved nine of those 12 shots in half.
Francis, meanwhile, struck for Port Charlotte in the 32nd minute for the game’s only goal thanks to an assist from Isabella Reyes.
“The first half was nice. We connected a lot. Their keeper is talented. I’m not going to take anything away from her. She’s probably the only reason they stayed afloat,” Charlotte coach Amanda Carr said. “She’s definitely an extremely talented keeper and it’s nice to play against a talented keeper because it brings out the best of both our forwards and our keeper.”
Charlotte forward Caitlin Lowery came into the game fresh off a five-goal performance over Palmetto last week but was thwarted multiple times by Stec. Two of those occasions came in the first half when Stec came out of the net to challenge Lowery and slid to deflect two shots from scoring, including one shot that ricocheted off the goalkeeper’s face.
Lowery kept attacking in the second half. She had another shot go just wide of the net in the 55th minute and Stec later stopped another shot by Lowery with a diving save in stoppage time.
“We knew starting [the game] she was their best player and so our assistant coach told me if she’s coming just go after her sideways so that’s what I did [in the first half],” Grace Stec said. “She didn’t get any goals so it worked.”
Charlotte put the pressure on in the game’s final five minutes, but Stec was unbeatable. Karina Arias and Morgan Brown each had corner kicks that were caught by Stec in mid-air before they could be played and Stec also saved a free kick by Brown from just outside the penalty box in the 76th minute.
Arias also took a free kick just a few yards away from the goal in stoppage time that went just over the goal. Carr was happy with her team’s push at the end and hopes that aggression will eventually translate to a full game.
“In the second half the pressure and the intensity and pace is the level we can play at,” Carr said. “Unfortunately, it just took us a little longer to get there tonight but we can be there. It’s just a matter of playing that way the whole game, which is a growing process with the team.”