After falling to the Virginia Beach Piranhas just six days prior, the Washington Spirit Reserves entered Friday’s Northeast Conference Championship match with a sense of determined purpose. Finding themselves down 1-0 at the half, Washington roared back with two unanswered goals in the final 45 minutes to expel the home-side Piranhas and earn the conference crown.
The win propels the Spirit Reserves into the USL W-League Championship next weekend in Bradenton, Florida. The W-League Championship utilizes a final four tournament format to determine the North American title winner.
Soaring temperatures and solar heat radiating off the Virginia Beach Sportsplex turf throughout the day gave way to a welcome sunset and pleasant coastal breeze at kickoff. In contrast to the pleasing conditions, both teams eagerly renewed the local rivalry and fiercely went at each other from the opening whistle.
Several opportunities tested the defenses at either end, and it seemed the half was destined to end scoreless. Virginia Beach dispelled that notion in stoppage time to send the home side Piranhas into the locker room with the 1-0 lead.
With a single minute of added time in the first half, the Piranhas launched a rapid assault at the Washington goal. Following a bit of confusion from a Virginia Beach rebounding shot, the Piranhas earned their first corner kick of the match. Virginia Beach midfielder Meghan Dullea drove the kick to the far side of the Washington goal mouth to crashing teammate Esther Anyanwu. Anyanwu pounded her volley into the upper right corner of the net with authority to open the scoring.
For the second time in less than a week, the Spirit Reserves faced a single goal deficit to the Piranhas. With more at stake for Friday’s match, Washington was quick to dismiss any thoughts of a repeat of events and furiously drove at the Virginia Beach goal early in the second half.
At the start of the second half, Virginia Beach called on their scoring champion Shan Jones and focused their attack by consistently feeding the ball in her direction. A member of the U-17 United States National Team, Spirit Reserves defender Andi Sullivan held her in check throughout the night, limited the dangerous scorer to only two shots.
Stalwart Washington captain Hayley Siegel drew first blood for the visitors, nabbing the equalizer on a feed from midfielder Katie Yensen in the 57th minute. Yensen cut into the Piranhas defense and slotted a crisp ball across the front of the Virginia Beach goal to Siegel. The Spirit Reserves captain collected the pass with her back to the goal, spun and took several quick touches before hammering her shot untouched past stunned Piranhas keeper Lauren Vetock to draw the match even.
The Spirit Reserves refused to ease up the pressure and were rewarded seven minutes later. As she has done all season, W-League assist champion Amber Stobbs added another statistical notch in the post-season in dramatic fashion.
The ever-reliable Stobbs raced down the right side of the Virginia Beach box and cruised in on goal. At the moment Virginia Beach keeper committed to the attack, Stobbs touched the ball past the sprawling Vetock to forward Ashley Herndon three yards out and facing nothing but net. The pass allowed Herndon to punish the Piranhas with a thundering blast smacked into the net to complete the Washington rally.
With the go-ahead goal in hand, the Spirit Reserves did not change the game plan and continued on the offensive for most of the remaining 25 minutes.
After five minutes of added time, the Spirit Reserves and their traveling faithful in the stands erupted into jubilation with the final whistle.
“I couldn’t be happier for this group of incredible young ladies,” beamed Team General Manager Tim Schweitzer. “We have had our share of these types of games this season and seen them go the other way.”
“To rise up and grab the reins when it really matters and fearlessly orchestrate a comeback like tonight shows everyone the character I have had the privilege to experience from these players all season,” concluded Schweitzer.
The Spirit Reserves await the remaining results this weekend to determine their opponent schedule in the USL W-League Championship Tournament held at the end of next week. The South Carolina Cobras defeated the Dayton Dutch Lions 2-1 on Friday evening to earn the Southeastern Conference spot in the finals, however both the Western and Central Conference Finals have yet to be played.