Ashland girls can’t find rhythm in loss to West Albany
ASHLAND — An off night couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Ashland High girls soccer team.
No matter if it was an attempted through ball down the middle of the field or a cross from the wing, Ashland just couldn’t get things going on a consistent basis Tuesday.
And because of it, a previously unbeaten season now has a number other than zero in the loss column.
Ashland’s run in the Class 5A state playoffs ended before it could truly get started Tuesday night, as the sixth-seeded Grizzlies suffered a 1-0 loss to No. 11 seed West Albany at Walter A. Phillips Field.
“I think it was just the nerves, the excitement of the bigger game,” Ashland head coach Eric Wolff said. “This was, in terms of connecting passes, one of our poorer games that we’ve had. I can only imagine that it’s the nerves because it mattered more. ... It’s super disappointing that we have to go out in a game that we weren’t playing our best.”
The loss was Ashland’s first of the season after going 8-0-5 — the first unbeaten regular season in Wolff’s 21-year tenure as head coach — on its way to sharing the regular-season Midwestern League title with North Eugene. Dating back to the spring season, the Grizzlies (8-1-5) hadn’t lost in regulation in 15 games.
“I think maybe we got in our heads a lot about the pressure of the game,” Ashland senior captain Chloe Holzshu said. “We all know what we can do, we all have amazing skill and are amazing players, but I think that maybe what happened was that the pressure got to us and so we over-thought what we were doing too much instead of playing the game that we love. We were really focused on going (to the state playoffs) because that’s the point, but I think we took that too much into account rather than just letting the goals happen.”
West Albany also ended Ashland’s season in the first round in 2019, the last time there was a state tournament held. Since making the 5A quarterfinals in 2014, Ashland has not won a playoff game, exiting in the first round five times now.
West Albany scored the lone goal of the match in the 25th minute off a Nikki Beers free kick. Beers, who was about 30 yards out from goal, looped a shot over Ashland keeper Esme Barnes’ outstretched arm at the far post and into the side netting.
It was one of the few shots on target the Bulldogs (9-6) had all night, with Barnes only forced to make four saves.
“Giving up that silly free kick goal, you’re kind of chasing the game,” Wolff said. “I just felt like they were putting more pressure on themselves than they needed to and they never got into a groove when they needed to. I think West Albany is a good team, but they didn’t force us into playing a bad game. We just weren’t connecting our passes the way we normally would.”
Both teams were able to create chances within the opening 10 minutes, with the game starting at a breakneck pace. West Albany nearly made it 1-0 three minutes in after Lily Ruiz was able to get behind the Ashland defense, but Barnes made her biggest save of the night at the near post.
The tenor of the game changed when the Grizzlies were forced to chase the lead midway through the first half. And because of how strong they had been defensively this season, trying to come from behind just hadn’t been a normal kind of situation Ashland found itself in much this fall.
“It definitely shocked us a little and got those nerves like, ‘Oh shoot, we’ve got to go to goal,’ even more than if it was just 0-0 and we were on a clean slate,” Holzshu said. “Being down, I think it made us a little bit more frantic instead of just calming down.”
Ashland’s two best chances of the night came within a 10-minute span in the second half. The first, courtesy of winger Emmeline Clark, was saved and then midfielder Ini Hammond dribbled past a pair of West Albany defenders but saw her shot sailed just wide of the Bulldogs goal.
West Albany finished with a slight advantage in shots at 8-7, with Bulldogs keeper Shelby Tarrant making three saves in her team’s first shutout since Oct. 12.
Wolff said he was pleased with the way his team played defensively, limiting a West Albany attack that had talented forwards to so few scoring opportunities.
But when it came to the Grizzlies’ attack, that’s where things were just off its axis, with the end result equating to a successful season suddenly ending.
“I felt like the runs were there and the ideas were there and the heart was there, but just the touch wasn’t there today,” Wolff said. “For whatever reason, they just couldn’t in a groove that they normally can. I wish I knew what it was, I wish I knew how to fix it, but it just wasn’t there today.”
Reach reporter Danny Penza at 541-776-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @penzatopaper.