Cumberland Gap raced to a 4-0 lead before fending off a furious mid-game rally by the Grainger Lady Grizzlies in a brutal soccer battle Sept. 8 in Harrogate.
The Lady Panthers avenged last season’s loss to Grainger, won their third district game in four tries, broke a losing streak, welcomed back a starter, and gave their fans an exciting show, all with a 6-4 win in their home opener.
“We broke a six-game losing streak,” said head coach Lorri Kimbrough. “We had Sammy (Pierce) back – a little bit – she’s not a 100 percent, but I think just her being on the field helped them to get together emotionally. The girls seemed to play good together. They got their hearts right I guess, and became a team again.”
Sophomore forward Ciara Goins ignited the first-half fireworks for the Lady Panthers with a goal four minutes into the game.
Cumberland Gap’s defenders then clamped down, making it tough on Grainger to find a rhythm. For every good move the Lady Grizzlies made, there was a Lady Panther defender to counter it.
“I was very aggravated at my team,” said Grainger head coach Tonya Wear. “We played West Greene the other night and we played awesome. If we had played like that in the first half it would’ve been a different ballgame tonight. “
Cumberland Gap defenders Tabitha Bolton, Alyssa Pierce, Kamora Ryhlick, midback Morgan Welch, midfielders Jesee Kimbrough, Chantel Davis, and Brooklyn Whitaker all played essential roles in disrupting Grainger each time it crossed the halfway line in the first half.
Freshman forward Riley Collett gave Cumberland Gap a 2-0 lead with a goal from the right side in the 25th minute. Her sister, senior forward Brinley Collett drilled one in less than three minutes later off an assist from Goins to make it 3-0.
At 31 minutes Goins and Collett tag-teamed a goal off of Jesee Kimbrough’s thunderous corner kick to give the Gap a 4-0 advantage. From the viewpoint of the large home crowd, the stage was set for an apparent rout of the one-loss Grizzlies.
However, in the 32nd minute, Grainger’s Madison Hodges averted a first-half shutout by finally dropping one over the head of the Panthers’ stingy goalkeeper Tabitha Roy, who finished with 21 saves. Cumberland Gap led 4-1 at halftime.
The second half started shaky for Roy and the Lady Panthers. Roy suffered a laceration to her leg while making a save to start the final 40 minutes. A collision sent both Roy and an addled Grainger player to the sideline.
The opportunistic Grizzlies then narrowed the deficit to just one goal when Meredith Hodges and Madison Langley both scored within the next two minutes. Hodges’ shot was to a vacant goal after backup keeper Kamora Ryhlick’s daring save attempt away from the net.
“Tabitha got hurt with blood running down her leg and had to come out,” said Coach Kimbrough. “KR (Kamora) had to go in, and she was a little nervous at first. Tabitha had to change her sock because it had blood on it, get bandaged up, and get back in there. That kind of threw us off in the back. When Tabitha came back, it seemed we were okay.”
With Cumberland Gap’s lead chiseled to a single goal, Brinley Collett received a lateral kick from Goins and nailed another goal from six yards out. The 5-3 cushion lasted for nearly 16 minutes before Grainger’s Madison Hodges tightened the score with a high-flying shot into the goal with less than 12 minutes to play. Trying to keep pace with Cumberland Gap’s scoring Collett sisters, Grainger’s Hodges sisters accounted for three of the Grizzlies’ four goals.
In the 73rd minute, freshman forward Brooklynn Whitaker sprinted between defenders and fired in a game-clinching goal from the 18. With it came a collective sigh of relief from the Lady Panthers’ faithful.
“The offense was good,” said Coach Kimbrough, “They were all shooting. We had shots from other people besides the ones who scored. Brittany Goins came in off the bench and had a good shot. Kylie Long had a chance. They had their opportunities.”
After a game of collisions, blood, and emotions, the exhausted Lady Panthers’ defense held the Lady Grizzlies scoreless the rest of the way.
“We put Chantel (Davis) and Ciara back there in the end to help secure the win,” said Kimbrough, ”because Grainger’s girls were so quick. By that time in the game Tabitha Bolton and our other girls were wore out. But they went back there and played like beasts and that’s all that matters.”
The victory for Cumberland Gap (3-6, 3-1) keeps it in control of its own destiny in the competitive District 2 A/AA race.
“It feels pretty good,” said Kimbrough. “We’ve got to be competing for second and third with that. So that’s good. That’ll keep us in the running if we can beat Berean. Hopefully Berean can beat Chuckey-Doak. So that’ll be the difference maker that could put us in second place.”
A 6-5 overtime loss to Chuckey-Doak, a state tournament qualifier last season, remains Cumberland Gap’s only district loss.
Although each team will try for a monumental upset over defending district and state champion Greeneville, until the athletic gap narrows between the Greene Devils and the second-tier soccer programs, second place is the realistic goal for which the other teams are playing.
The Lady Panthers return to District 2-A/AA action Tuesday versus Northview Academy in Sevierville, one of two teams in teams in the district with an artificial playing surface.
“They may not have won very many games, but, like us, they’ve played tough against opponents,” said Kimbrough. “You never know. We’re going to their place, so we’re going to have to be ready.”