The senior players on Conway High’s soccer team capped an emotional day Saturday by getting a diploma and a state championship trophy on the same day.
The Conway team made history and established a legacy by capping a 22-0 season with a 3-0 victory over Bentonville in the 7A girls championship game at Fayetteville. It was the first state soccer title for the Conway girls,.
"This was not a team of one or two stars; there were 24 of them," said second-year CHS coach Whitney Allison. "I had a whole roster of stars. Everybody had a role. What we had was special. What we had was rare. A collective team spirit won this championship."
The CHS girls allowed only six goals in 22 games and won their three state tournament games by a combined 10-0.
"To win tournament games by 3-0, 4-0 and 3-0 is incredible," Allison said. "That shows what kind of back line (Madison Dayer, Kyndal Leffert, Kacey Hight and Britney Tomlin) we had. They were all great players and to watch how they played together with (keeper) Brittanie Ashcraft was fun."
Bentonville was making its fifth straight appearance in the 7A title game.
"I thought we did a great job of keeping our composure, especially after some of these girls graduated (in North Little Rock) the same day," Allison said. "It was a high-octane days. If we got beat, I wanted Bentonville to beat us. I didn’t want our nerves to beat us. I thought the only thing that could beat us was nerves."
Allison felt her team had an advantage in speed going into the game.
"Bentonville was big and strong, but most teams don’t have the speed we do," Allison said. "We’d watched them play and they over-rotate and leave a lot of space, which means, like if the ball is on the left side of the field, the extreme right side is wide open. We wanted to get the ball past their lead defenders, where they would have to chase it facing their goal with some players with speed going at them with full force. We felt we could exploit that.
"I told them players if we could get the ball past their defense a couple of times and hit that open space, we could win. And that’s exactly what happened. All three of our goals occurred that way.
The Lady Cats scored their first goal early in the game when Leffert hit a long ball in front of the net that Julia Pettit handled and put the ball in the back of the net. Conway took a 2-0 lead at the half with Hight got to the ball on the extreme right side and fed Caitlyn Carroll on the opposite side of the field. "Caitlyn took it just like with talked about, gained her composure and goal," Allison said.
"I was worried at the half because people will tell you a 2-0 lead is the scariest lead in soccer because one goal gets a team back in the game and then you might get nervous and tight and it’s a ballgame," Allison said. "I told the girls to keep it up."
Conway’s third goal was scored on a two-on-two situation involving Brooke Ballard and Ashley Johnson.
"Brooke and Ashley played together so well and get along so well and know each other so well, on and off the field," Allison said. "Brooke passed to Ashley at the perfect moment for the goal. She was patient. Not too early, not too late. Textbook. Ashley took the pass with poise and composure and stuck it in as perfect a goal as you’ll see."
Allison also praised the job forwards Pettit and Sydney Meyer did at field. "Bentonville puts a lot of players at midfield and they swarm you like bees," said Allison. "Sydney and Julia had their hands full with Bentonville’s style at midfield and handled it."
The championship was one on Razorback Field, where Allison played four years as a Lady Razorback.
"It was surreal to come back," she said. "There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears and good moments and bad moments on that field for me. This was where I learned team soccer. We started the game and I’m standing in the same soot my coach used to stand. We were on my old bench. This place has some many great memories for me and now these players have some.
"Years from now they’ll have great stories to tell — about a perfect season, about graduating, then getting on a plane to fly from North Little Rock to Fayetteville and about all the success they were able to share and the relationships they made."