It’s a senior class Jason Swam hates to say goodbye to. In fact, the Gardendale head girls soccer coach put the farewell speech off for as long as possible.
He stood 30 feet away with his arms crossed, watching through a thin layer of liquid forming on his eyes as his team embraced seven seniors, who played their final minute of high school soccer just moments earlier.
“It’s going to be difficult. That’s why I left the crowd over there. I didn’t necessarily want to be a part of all the crying because I’m going to get caught up in it,” said Swam, following a 3-1 season-ending loss to Homewood in the Class 6A quarterfinals Thursday. “There are five starters amongst those seven seniors, so that’s a big chunk of our starting group, but we’re fortunate to have some young ones coming up that are talented.”
Despite its limited ball possession in Driver Stadium, Gardendale punched the first shot through late in the first half. Junior Elise Fitzgerald sent a free kick into Patriots territory where freshman Avery Moody found it and bumped it past the keeper for a 1-0 lead with 6:37 remaining in the half.
“Elise Fitzgerald played a great ball in there and Avery got on the other end of it and I think Homewood was a little caught off guard by it, because they had controlled the tempo of the game to that point,” said Swam. “It came at a crucial moment for us and we were able to hold onto it until halftime, which I think was important.”
The home team carried a 1-0 advantage into the break, but Homewood found its offense during the final 40 minutes. Patriots senior Margaret O’Hare took advantage of a Gardendale miscue and tied the game at 1-all with 36:19 remaining on the second-half clock. Rockets keeper Kathryn Jones, who provided at least eight saves on Thursday, was called for holding the ball too long, which gifted O’Hare a free kick from up close.
“I saw [the referee] counting and tried to get the message to the keeper in time and I didn’t, so it’s on me if it’s on anybody,” said Swam of the penalty.
Homewood junior Claire Touliatos put the Area 10 champions out front for good with a make at the 11:01 mark of the second half. Seconds later, O’Hare assisted eighth-grader Maddie Massie on a shot that put the Patriots out front, 3-1. That score later went final.
“I think that you get a burst of confidence and a turn of the momentum and you have to capitalize on that,” said Homewood head coach Mindy McBride of the two quick strikes.
According to McBride, none of her girls had advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs until this season. Homewood will take on the winner of Randolph-Decatur next Friday in the Class 6A semifinals at John Hunt Park.
Gardendale closes out its season with a record of 12-8-1. The Rockets’ senior class—a group that’s won six playoff games over the last two years—includes Bailey Wick, Kenzie Payne, Nadia Palachtchouk, Peyton Miller, Hannah Ferguson, Maria Candido Lemus and Elida Moerk.