PRINCETON — This time, Princeton’s girls soccer team was doing the celebrating after a first-round playoff game.
The Bulldogs had made the playoffs five times in previous seasons, but could not break through with their first playoff victory. Wednesday night against Clinton Union, Princeton had plenty to celebrate after a 3-0 victory over the Spartans.
“It’s a big step,” Princeton coach Eusebio Montoya said. “We won the (Carolina 1A) conference and went 6-0. Our first victory in the playoffs is a tremendous success and I credit the girls. We are just looking forward to Saturday (and the second round of the playoffs) and hopefully get a good result then.”
Princeton (14-4-1) advanced to a meeting with the Southwest Onslow in the second round.
The young Bulldogs, who have just two seniors on their roster, got two goals from sophomore Jessica Brush and a goal and an assist from freshman Peyton Whitley.
“They are usually the main two up top and they complement each other well,” Montoya said of his young offensive stars. “They do a very good job of working off each other.”
Union (5-10), the fourth seeded from the Tri-County 1A Conference, earned its first trip to the playoffs. The Spartans finished its season with four victories in its final seven regular-season games after a 1-7 start.
“This is my first year coaching soccer,” Union coach Jonathan Taylor said. “I told them I was going to coach the same way I did in football and they bought into it. I kept telling them, ‘Keep your heads up and good things will happen.’ I couldn’t be any prouder of them.”
Turning point: The game’s first goal came in the 26th minute. After keeping the ball in the Union end and getting some good shots that Union keeper Karen Neri turned away, the Bulldogs found the net when Whitley had the ball on the left side of the box and found Brush open in front of the goal.
“We had been controlling the game but we weren’t putting it in the back of the net,” Montoya said. “After that first goal, the girls were more relaxed and were able to go to the goal more and get some good opportunities.”
Whitley put the ball right on Brush’s foot near the right side of the goal, and Brush took her time and slipped the ball past Neri into the left corner of the net.
“I just had to relax,” Brush said. “I just kept my head up. It’s placement over power, always.”
Highlight reel: Princeton keeper Amber Hill, a senior, didn’t get a lot of work. But she came up big halfway through the second half when three Union players broke past the entire Princeton defense.
Hill made a diving save to her right to preserve the shutout and keep the score at 3-0.
“She was there when we needed her,” Montoya said. “My whole defense got caught behind on that breakaway and she was there to save it.”
Unsung: Princeton sophomore defender Kathy Hewitt was like a wall all night, turning the ball around when it crossed midfield and sending it back into the offensive end for the Bulldogs.
“She is very good at being at the right spot at the right time,” Montoya said of Hewitt. “She is always there, always stepping to the ball and being in good position if it gets past the midfield. I thought she did very well tonight at stepping in and getting a foot on the ball.”
Taylor pointed to Union defenders Amy Rodriguez and Sarah McQueen.
“Amy does a great job,” Taylor said. “Sarah was kind of tentative at the beginning of the year, but she has really come on. They are our two best defensemen.”
Putting up numbers: Brush’s second goal came in the 37th minute when she took a pass from McKenzie Smale and knocked it in from about 15 yards out on the right side.
Whitley capped the scoring eight minutes into the second half when she corralled a deflection in front of the Union goal and sent it into the net.
What worked: Princeton maintained its cohesion on the offensive and defensive ends of the field to keep Union at bay for almost the entire game. The Bulldogs kept the ball on Union’s side of midfield for most of the contest, limiting the Spartans’ opportunities.
“I think the girls, especially in the middle of the field were able to move the ball around and spread the field, which led to some really good opportunities,” Montoya said. “They key was communication. I told the girls in the beginning of the season that we were not communicating as well as we need to. I think tonight we did a very good job of stepping forward (on defense) as a team, moving side to side, shifting forward and back.”
For Union, solid defense was the bright spot in the first 20 minutes.
“I thought early on, we did a great job defensively,” Taylor said. “We were able to get in front, kick it out of bounds and get some throw-ins. I told the girls we didn’t have anything to lose and to stay aggressive. A couple of times, our aggressiveness put us out of position.”
What didn’t work: Princeton played an excellent game, but Montoya was looking for his team to finish more of its offensive opportunities.
“There is always room for improvement,” Montoya said. “I think with us it was our finishing. Our girls get a lot of good looks, but we have trouble finishing sometimes.”
Union struggled to generate much offense against the relentless Bulldogs.
“They are very good at dumping and chasing,” Taylor said. “They kick the ball into the zone and are very good at pursuing it. I knew they were going to be very strong offensively.”
Best quote: “All of our underclassmen stepped up really well this year,” Whitley said. “Our seniors did a phenomenal job as well, but our team consisted (mostly) of underclassmen, so we had to step up.”