St. Stephens soccer falls at top-seeded South Point

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BELMONT — Despite finishing third during the regular season, St. Stephens was the final Western Foothills 3A Conference team standing in the state girls soccer playoffs. But on Thursday night at Lineberger Stadium, the 13th-seeded Indians lost to top-seeded South Point by a 7-1 final as they saw their season come to an end in the fourth round of the 3A postseason.

Senior Grace Smith led the Red Raiders with five goals as she ran her season total to a team-high 49, while two other players also scored for the hosts. On the other side, 12th grader Juliette Hessong scored St. Stephens’ lone goal late in the opening half to prevent unbeaten South Point from recording its 18th shutout victory of the season.

“I think it’s incredible what we accomplished because a lot of people didn’t think we’d be where we are today,” St. Stephens coach Tina Voudouris said of her team’s achievements this season. “Going into this we were the underdogs, we were seen as the third-place team, but these girls have accomplished so much more than people really truly realize. They come out and they bust their butt every single day, they’re dedicated to each other, they’re a family, there’s never been a moment where they haven’t been connected as a whole.

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“I think coming into the season like I said we were probably the underdog and unexpected, and then they really showed what they were capable of, especially through the playoff run,” she added. “I have no regrets about the way this season went.”

Hessong nearly put St. Stephens (15-5-1) on top just over 10 seconds in when she found herself with a scoring opportunity from the right side of the field and took a shot that was wide left. South Point quickly went the other way, with Smith putting one in to make it 1-0 in favor of the Red Raiders at the 39:23 mark.

Hessong also took a shot in the 10th minute that was wide left, and in the 13th she sent a cross from the far right side of the field to Kaitlyn Prado in the left side of the box. However, Prado’s shot attempt was denied by South Point (21-0-3) defender Karsyn Lowman.

In the 17th minute, Hessong tried a straightaway shot off a pass from Elliot Bailey that was a touch high, leaving the score at 1-0. Shortly thereafter, Smith scored two goals in short order, finding the right side of the net in the 19th and bouncing a shot off the left post and in less than two minutes later.

After nearly scoring on a free kick in the 29th minute on a ball that was punched out by South Point goalkeeper Payton Decker, Hessong was fouled just outside the left side of the box in the 38th, giving her another opportunity at a free kick. This time, she made the Red Raiders pay, putting a shot past Decker to cut the deficit to 3-1 at halftime.

“Juliette and Mira (Fogle), they’re like the glue to this team,” said Voudouris of two of her seniors. “They’re two wonderful young ladies, they’re brilliant on the field and off the field, those are two key players that we’re truly gonna miss next year. Every time we were in attack it was the two of them either leading it up or finishing it off, and same thing with the defensive side of it. They always gave 110%, there’s no two better players by a long shot than those two girls.”

Nevertheless, the second half belonged to the Red Raiders, beginning with a goal from Mackenzie Crill in the 47th minute. The Indians did get some decent looks from the likes of Hessong, Bella Yang, Jade Gonzales, Callie Beard and Addison Cox, but were unable to draw closer.

Ultimately, South Point pulled away thanks to three goals in the final five minutes. Lexi Birtwistle found the back of the net with 4:55 remaining, while Smith scored just over a minute later before also scoring off an assist from Birtwistle in the closing minute.

“Everything they did they did it effortlessly,” said Voudouris of South Point. “They completed every pass, they executed every shot, every run. They were on top of it and they were ready to go, and this team will put up a really good run for the state championship.”

South Point will host second-seeded West Henderson (23-3) in Tuesday’s 3A West Regional championship match after the Falcons advanced with a 2-0 victory over third-seeded Lake Norman Charter in Round 4. The winner of that contest will face either top-seeded Eastern Alamance (18-0-1) or second-seeded Jacksonville (24-0) from the East Region in the state title match next weekend at UNC Greensboro.

Josh McKinney is the sports editor for the Hickory Daily Record.