Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
Brittany Jensen and the South Medford Panthers were determined to avoid another postseason overtime session.
Jensen scored in the ninth minute and the South Medford defense held off a hard charge by Thurston down the stretch as the Panthers advanced to the second round of the Class 6A girls soccer state playoffs with a 1-0 win over the defending state champions Saturday at South Medford High School.
The win gives 11th-ranked South Medford another crack at sixth-ranked Sheldon, which whipped the Panthers 4-0 on Sept. 10, in the second round of the playoffs. The round of 16 game is set for Tuesday in Eugene.
Thurston (8-5-2), which won three playoff games by one goal during last year's championship run, tried to find a little more magic late in Saturday's game but couldn't muster a clear enough shot against South Medford keeper McKenzie Kapp. The 5-foot-5 junior had nine saves, seven in the second half.
South Medford (11-3-1) ran off the field celebrating after another Thurston push was negated and the final horn blew. It was a moment the Panthers had longed for after back-to-back first-round letdowns — a 3-2 overtime loss to Grant in 2011 and a 1-0 overtime loss (3-2 on penalty kicks) to Lincoln last season.
"This time, our goal was not to go to PKs, not to go to overtime," Jensen said.
Jensen used some fancy footwork to give the Panthers the early lead. The junior forward took a pass from sophomore Franny Gomez near the top of the box left of center, faked a diagonal run then quickly crossed back to her left to lose a defender and create an opening. Her one-versus-one shot from about 12 yards away easily beat goalkeeper Lindsey Mabinori near post.
"That's always a really good feeling when you see an open area right in front of the goal," Jensen said. "I had a really open opportunity and it was a clean shot."
The quick strike put the pressure on Thurston and changed the complexion of the game.
"We knew going into the game that Thurston was a very good defensive team," said South Medford coach Chris Hollewijn, whose team finished tied with North Medford for first place in District 1. "They have a very good goalkeeper who handled some of our other big shots later in the game very well. It was a smart finish by (Jensen)."
The goal came three minutes after Thurston's Marissa Braun fired a free kick into a sea of jerseys from just outside the box.
The Panthers nearly added to their lead two minutes after Jensen's goal when she found Montana Logue streaking down the right wing, but Logue's open shot from about 20 yards away sailed high.
It took the Colts (8-5-2), who placed fourth in District 2, a while to settle down after Jensen's strike, but after they did the game tightened up.
The Colts uncorked three dangerous shots over the last 10 minutes of the first half but South survived each, including a 30-yard free kick by Marissa Braun that required a gutsy save in traffic by Kapp.
"We got down early and it's never fun to come from behind and try to fight back," Thurston coach Jessica Cardwell said. "We had the opportunities, especially in the first half, and we couldn't quite finish. And that just put us in a scattered frenzy that last 20 minutes, when we were throwing as many people forward as we could, trying to get as many shots off as we could. It's how the game goes."
Indeed, the final 20 minutes were frantic as Thurston tried desperately to get the ball in the net and South Medford tried with equal zeal to avoid another dreaded overtime.
The Colts, who out-shot the Panthers 11-9 overall and 8-4 in the second half, had several good looks at a potential equalizer but South's defense came through each time, including a point-blank clear-out with eight minutes to go.
Two minutes later the Colts threatened again and were again turned away. Thurston senior forward Sarah Johnson charged down the left sideline and squeezed around the corner just in time to boot a left-footed laser. The shot was on frame, but Kapp snuffed it out.
"At that point, obviously you're playing for every game because if you lose you're out, so they kind of kept pouring forward and pushing because they definitely wanted to get the equalizer," Hollewijn said. "And they came close."