ALTON — A short but heavy downpour left the soccer field at Gordon Moore Park a little slick and the Granite City Warriors took advantage, beating Alton 1-0 in a Southwestern Conference showdown.
GCHS sophomore forward Grace Neidhardt scored a quick goal off a feed from senior defenseman Leann Smith in the second minute of the game, proving to be the only offense needed.
The Warriors improved to 9-8-1 overall and 2-4 in the SWC with the win, while AHS slipped to 4-10-1 and 0-5.
The Redbirds pressured and gained momentum as the game went on, eventually outshooting Granite City 8-6 and beating them 5-2 on corners. It made the quick strike by the Warriors that much more important.
“You always want to get a good start and getting the goal under our belt early was a big plus,” GCHS head coach Ken Prazma said. “I'm sure every team talks about that getting a good start, so when we got the 1-0 start it was good. Then we had a couple players with injuries and they needed to sit out and that kind of put us under the gun, having to go to our bench early and keep them on the field. Then Alton came out and started playing well. They came after us and were serving in a lot of balls and when you play back and play defense a lot you're going to get a lot of pressure on your net.”
Starting quick is exactly what Alton head coach Laura Ridolfi said the Redbirds have not been doing this season and it hampered them again on Thursday.
“I talked to the girls quite a bit this year and we're actually a little bit notorious for giving up a goal in the first five minutes of a game or the first five of the second half, so it's a little disappointing from that aspect,” Ridolfi said. “We've lost a couple games like that this year, but after the first five or 10 minutes they kind of settled in and I thought the rest of the first half it was pretty even and the second half I thought we gave them a run for their money and it was little unfortunate we couldn't find a goal.”
The lone goal was assisted by the wet grass according to Neidhardt. She took the feed from Leann Smith, dribbled in behind the defense and flicked along the grass past Alton goalie Brittany Storey and into the bottom right corner of the goal.
“The ball got through and got around because of the wetness and the goalie came out a little and I flipped it past her,” Neidhardt said. “It bounced over, so the water got it past.”
The goal proved to be the only real scoring chance in the first half, but Alton upped the tempo in the second half.
Brianna Hatfield fired a crossing pass in front of the GCHS goal in the 46th minute, but the Redbirds were unable to finish.
Maybe the best chance for the Birds came in the 67th minute when Katie Kercher blistered a shot on goal, but right into the bread basket of Warrior goalie Abbey Mercer. It may have been the biggest save of the game.
“Their goaltender made a big time save on a corner kick late and kind of kept them in it,” Ridolfi said.
Kendyl Pritchett had a chance on goal in the 77th minute, but again it was saved by Mercer and then Hatfield lofted a free kick on goal in the 79th minute, but again it was corralled by Mercer.
Offensive struggles have plagued the Redbirds throughout the season. Thursday marked their seventh loss by one goal and they have failed to score more than two goals on offense in a game all year.
“We've lost every game by one goal except three of them, so we're in every game and it's frustrating for the kids and it's hard for me to be upset with them because they're playing well. It does get to the point where it's like, 'Man, when is it going to fall our way.'”
Thursday's win for the Warriors is a preview for the Class 3A Edwardsville Regional where they will meet the Redbirds again. Though that game set for 7 p.m. on May 19 will be played on the turf at the District 7 Sports Complex, Prazma thinks it can be a confidence booster for his girls knowing they've previously beaten Alton. He also worries that the way AHS finished could swing the momentum pendulum in its direction in the regional, too.
“I'm sure we gave them a little bit of confidence too by the way they were playing at the end of the game, basically almost the whole second half, but we did win the game so it does give us a little bit of an advantage and hopefully we get everybody healthy and we've got a couple weeks before we get going,” Prazma said.
Neidhardt added, “Now that we've got the win we can go into the (regional) with a lot of confidence and as long as we play our game we'll be fine.”
But Ridolfi knows the game on the turf in Edwardsville will change the entire pace and it's still anybody's game.
“Edwardsville's turf is big,” Ridolfi said. “We just played their the other night and it's very wide and there is a lot of space out on the field. This grass is very thick and slows the ball down, so the turf will definitely bring an added challenge. They've got some pacey players and we've got some pacey players high up the field, so it could go either way.”
Each squad has one regular season game remaining prior to the regional. Alton plays host to Belleville West at 6:30 p.m. on May 14, while Granite City welcomes Marquette Catholic at 11 a.m. Saturday.