CORTEZ – As open as the window of opportunity was for Montezuma-Cortez to take a slight lead in the 3A Southwestern League’s 2023 title chase on Monday, Sophia Shepard saw it closing even faster.
Having successfully threaded several through-ball passes ahead to the Panthers’ forwards, only to then see visiting Bayfield’s defense repel just as many potential rushes on goalkeeper McKenna Noonan, M-CHS’ facilitating senior saw a golden opportunity develop in the 64th minute of what had been a tense 0-0 match at halftime.
Having advanced the ball through midfield and drawing attention from multiple Wolverines, Shepard saw that the approaching defenders hadn’t closed on her enough to trap teammate Jordi Mahler, not far ahead, in an illegal cherry-pick position. And with zero white uniforms remaining between Mahler and Noonan, and an immense amount of open grass in which to place a pass, Shepard knew she had to gamble.
Before the guests could properly react, Mahler – onsides by not much more than a stride – was alone on a run toward Noonan. The sophomore converted the chance for M-CHS in what ended up being the only score in a 1-0 victory.
“Yeah, I thought for sure that was going to be offsides. And when it wasn’t a sigh of relief came over me,” Shepard said. “Jordi and I have really built a lot of trust with each other, and we’ve really worked on understanding the way we make runs, the way we pass – and just having that knowledge has really helped us make those perfect through-ball passes.”
“Sophia made a great pass to Jordi, and Jordi got the advantage of getting in front of them and then taking her time,” said junior Anna Jenson. “We definitely had to calm it down so we could look for those needle-like passes, and it paid off in the end.”
Winning their fifth consecutive match, the Panthers improved to 3-0 in SWL play and 5-3 overall. BHS slipped to 3-1 in league, and 4-3 overall, setting the stage for an electric April 27 rematch inside Wolverine Country Stadium.
“It’s definitely exciting,” Jenson said. “We know they’re going to be our toughest team to beat.”
“Listening to each other and trusting each other is really important,” Shepard said. “Building that bond and team spirit has really helped … for difficult games such as Bayfield.”
Shortly after the opening whistle, it was clear the contest was up for grabs and both sides had some quality chances. Shepard nearly broke through for a fifth-minute goal, but clanged her shot off Noonan’s near-side post.
“I definitely was like ‘Dang it! What am I doing?’” she said. “So calming down and … just regrouping, rethinking – especially for myself, not getting in my head – helped keep this game going. It’s important to (keep) your head on the field.”
Wolverine sophomore Sydney Rey soon volleyed a splendid chance over M-CHS goalie Aubrey Rutherford in the 13th. After Shepard zipped a 22nd-minute free kick just wide to Noonan’s left from 25 yards out, Rutherford gloved a dangerous Rey shot from beyond 20 yards.
“Her motivation to win …. She’s definitely pushing us all; she can see the whole field and she’s telling us where to be and stuff,” said Jenson. “And she made some great saves today that I thought were going in; that’s just the hard work in practice that she’s putting in.”
Noonan, however, made an incredible doorstep denial of Montezuma-Cortez freshman Keeley Clark in the 29th to ultimately keep the match scoreless going into intermission. Later, she slid to stop senior Carlie McClellan’s 48th-minute try. After Noonan disrupted another McClellan attempt in the 67th, she very nearly equalized in the 70th.
Junior Genesis Barrera’s high-arcing shot, however, taken from just outside the corner of M-CHS’ 18 and targeting Rutherford’s upper back corner, unluckily curved outside the framework and out of bounds.
Rutherford totaled seven saves and Noonan five, and each side earned four corner kicks.
Bayfield was also bent on bouncing back from a blizzard-battered 10-2 loss at 2A Loveland Classical Academy on Friday. It’s scheduled Saturday trip to Colorado Springs Thomas MacLaren School was canceled.
Last season’s league champion with a 5-1 mark, M-CHS will next see action Thursday at 2A Ignacio. On Friday, BHS will welcome 2A Lake County. Both matches are slated to begin at 4 p.m.