By Jordan Kroeger, SunCoast Sports
NORTH PORT — The North Port High School girls soccer team battled neck-and-neck with Estero up until the final seconds of Thursday’s Region 4A-3 quarterfinal.
But after holding off the Wildcats’ first 22 shots of the night, the Bobcats couldn’t stop shot No. 23 to force extra time.
Claudia Lopez scored the match’s lone goal in stoppage time to propel Estero to a 1-0 victory over North Port. While the Wildcats will face district rival Fort Myers in the regional semis, the Bobcats’ season ends in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight year less than a week after winning the program’s first district title.
North Port played without three keys players, including Augusta Purvis, who wasn’t able to play after receiving a red card in last Friday’s district championship game.
“You might say it’s a tough loss but we played outstanding and we played outstanding with a very good team. It could have gone either way,” North Port coach Bill Callan said. “I’m not going to leave this game second-guessing anything that we did.
“We did what we could, we had our chances and they had their chances. They’re an outstanding team. I’m not sad at all. We accomplished a lot this season and we got better with every game. I thought we played outstanding tonight so I’m proud of all the girls.”
Kelly Murray provided the game-winning assist, sending a long pass ahead to Lopez, who sent the shot from the middle of the penalty box past North Port keeper Kayla Gordon-Somers, who finished with nine saves.
It was redemption for Lopez, considering she missed a wide-open net in the 72nd minute. On the play, she managed to get all the way into the penalty area and dribbled around Gordon-Somers — who came out to defend — only to send the ball out-of-bounds and into the side of the net.
“I felt horrible about missing the open net, so I had to redeem myself and I did,” said Lopez, who now has 28 goals on the year. “I’m so happy I did it for my team or else I would have been so mad at myself forever.”
Estero (17-2-3) kept the ball on North Port’s end of the field most of the night and outshot the Bobcats 23-3. But North Port (11-6) had other chances — including one sequence inside the penalty box where they volleyed the ball back and forth with Estero’s defense five times — but didn’t always pull the trigger when the opportunities presented themselves.
North Port only forced Estero keeper Sarah Smith to make one save all night.
“As a forward it’s very difficult to know when to shoot and when to cut,” Callan said. “Sometimes you cut and you shoot and you look brilliant, and sometimes you cut and the ball gets taken away, so I’m not going to second-guess what my forwards did. They got into the attack and we did our best so that’s all we can ask for.”
The Wildcats averaged five goals a game during the regular season and Callan knew it would take a great defensive effort to stop their attack. He kept several players back on defense to cut off Estero’s passing lanes to make it difficult to get off clean shots.
And it nearly worked.
“We were just playing disciplined defense, that’s all,” Callan said. “We were marking the players properly. We just made sure that we covered the diagonal runs and we played our hearts out. That’s what you ask from your players and they delivered tonight. Unfortunately, the scoreboard didn’t say it, but we played outstanding, so I’m very happy with the girls.”