MANSFIELD — The distance between the established and new breed became a little shorter after Kennedale's 2-1 victory against Midlothian Heritage Monday night at R.L. Anderson Stadium.
Especially when the No. 11 girls' 4A team in Texas pushes the best to the brink of defeat.
"They had a freshman that was playing for the national team come in – as a person who had one of those types of players I know how valuable it is – but they've come a long way from last year to this year. Coach Slov's done wonders with that program in a small amount of time," said Michael Strange, the head girls soccer coach at Kennedale High School. "We knew we could exploit some stuff with some of their players on the back line and we had our chances, but we just missed on them. I told the girls all season that missing those opportunities in January may not matter, but they do when you reach the playoffs. In the postseason, those chances become fewer and fewer."
The fact that each team's goal came within the first 25 minutes of the match and neither scored until the last 10 minutes may best illustrate both the lack of distance between a sports powerhouse like Kennedale and a young and up-and-comer like Midlothian Heritage that could be brimming with unrivaled potential.
While the Jaguars struck first with a timely assist by Vicky Reyes and the right foot of junior Logan Ybarra in the 17th minute, the Lady Wildcats rallied behind Hannah Biles helper and Eryka McIntyre's laser beam to the back of the net in the 23rd. It was an almost fitting beginning for two teams that are top 15 in the state per the Texas Girls Coaches Association.
Most fans of either team knew their flagship girls soccer team could score in bunches. The Jaguar and Lady Wildcat defense, though, turned what could've been a track meet into the gritty, physical battle fought on R.L. Anderson's pitch.
Five-foot-six freshman netminder Megan McCarthy spoiled chance after chance with cat-like reflexes and shots by McIntyre, Alondra Amos and Cara Hunt skirted to the left or over the top of the net. Kennadale's senior-junior goalkeeping tandem of Sara Isela Calzada and Raeley Crosley, too, swatted away Jaguar shots with ruthless efficiency.
Whether it was either Jaguar aggression of Lady Wildcat tenacity, defense more than the offense was the proverbial belle of the ball.
"I'm so proud of these girls. I knew as long as we were getting better throughout the year we'd be able to push any 4A school in the state," said Gerald Slovacek, the MHHS head girls' soccer coach, about his team's journey to the regional quarterfinal round and Mansfield. "We did it right here against the No. 1 team in the state. [McIntyre] got a couple good shots on us, but we closed the gap between No. 11 and No. 1. All along, I preached to them to believe in each other and keep improving. There were district games that were blowouts, but we were always looking to improve despite the score. At times they didn't like it, but in the end, it made a difference. A lot of that had to do with the senior leadership we had this year.
"Vicky and Morgan (McNutt) — who didn't get a lot of field time this year — were our captains, always had good attitudes and did things the right way. They showed unbelievable character regardless of the situation."
McIntyre, who leads Kennedale with 30 goals scored this season, finally broke through the Jaguars' stingy defensive wall and dribbled one past the outstretched fingers of a diving McCarthy save attempt at the second half's 9:44 mark. It took the best 4A girls team in the state — and back-to-back soccer champs — 48 minutes to finally break through the Midlothian Heritage defense, score the deadlock breaker and earn a regional tournament berth.
Though the light of the Jaguars season and the door to a pair of senior soccer careers dimmed and closed on Monday night, the four-year journey from Midlothian High School to Midlothian Heritage High School helped build arguably one of the best-positioned athletics programs in the state.
The Jaguars ended their season 21-4-3 overall and as 8-0 undefeated district champions despite playing only two years of varsity soccer. It was also the second year in a row the Jaguars reached the 4A girls' soccer playoffs.
A success of that magnitude — in basketball, baseball, football, golf, softball, soccer and track and field — is courtesy of coaches like Slovacek, Nick Junior, Andy Slye and Lee Wiginton and players like Reyes, Michael Holland, Nathan Gaskamp and Preston Smith IV.
And every one of the girls that made a move to Midlothian Heritage, whether by choice or by a requirement.
"I was one of the few that had the opportunity to choose where they want to go. This group is special and, because of that, they made my choice a great one," said Reyes while sniffing back tears and emotion.
The senior captain decided to leave the comfortable surroundings of Midlothian High and a successful 6A girls soccer program and transfer to Midlothian Heritage High School at the beginning of her junior year when the school district split in 2015. She was one of the few with varsity experience among the many that had toiled in the junior varsity, freshman or middle school levels.
Two years later, Reyes had no regrets about leaving one soccer powerhouse and helping create another.
"These girls — and every student-athlete at this school — puts in the work to be great, regardless of the sport," she continued. "Every player had the opportunity to meet amazing girls this season. There's not one that can't make you smile or won't work hard for you. We had a lot of laughs, got to know each other better and had an amazing coach to get us through all of it. Even without me there, I know that the girls I'm leaving behind are going to step it up and go to or three rounds deeper than we did this year. Getting to state is our goal at Heritage and we are not going to stop until we accomplish it."
Marcus S. Marion can be reached for story idea submissions or concerns at (469) 517-1456. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcusMarionWNI.