When the Northern Region girls' soccer playoffs begin next week, the 16-team field will not include one of the region's top teams - the Centreville Wildcats.
Centreville, arguably one of the top five teams in the region as far as talent level and success, plays in perhaps the best district - the Concorde - in the state. With four teams from each of the Northern Region's four districts allowed to advance to regionals, it was a certainty that at least one outstanding team from the Concorde District would not qualify.
That, unfortunately for Wildcat Nation, turned out to be coach Gary Malebranche's Centreville team.
Centreville saw its season end way too soon and in heart-breaking fashion on Tuesday afternoon, May 18 when it lost to Robinson, 3-1, in a first round district playoff game. The Wildcats entered districts as the No. 4-seed and had to play a talented No. 5 team in Robinson.
The Rams, perennial region powers over the years under long time head coach Jim Rike, are more in the line of a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. But in the brutally tough Concorde, Robinson slipped to fifth place in the regular season standings, and therefore held the No. 5 seeding for districts.
So both Robinson (8-3-2) and Centreville (8-4-2) found themselves in an unenviable No. 5 versus No. 4 first round district tournament matchup with the winner both advancing to Wednesday's semifinals and earning an automatic seeding into next week's regionals, and the loser seeing its season come to an abrupt halt.
Robinson, thanks mainly to a fantastic 15 minutes stretch of play to begin the second half - in which the Rams scored all three of their goals - won the district playoff contest over Centreville and advanced to the following day's semifinals game at Chantilly on Wednesday.
Centreville, meanwhile, which turned into one of the region's better teams this spring under first-year Wildcat coach Malebranche, saw a season that had held so much promise — especially during a stretch from April 6 to April 22 when the team won six consecutive games by shutout — end with the loss to the Rams.
"Gary's done a very nice job with his team," said Rike, the Rams' coach. "I told our girls this would be a very tough team to beat.
"You've got five good teams in our district but because of the way things are set up, only four can go to regionals," said Rike. "We dropped the ball a couple of times during the regular season and found ourselves in fifth place."
Rike, following his team's win over Centreville, gathered the Rams' players together and talked to them about their upcoming district semis game against Chantilly and who they might potentially play at regionals. There was a natural sense of excitement from the Robinson players as they looked ahead to more postseason game.
For Centreville, Malebranche and his assistants gathered the Wildcats together to encourage and console them following a wonderful season that ended without a fitting conclusion.
"This team had chemistry and camaraderie, and the effort was always there," said Malebranche, admiringly of his team. "They've always done everything I've asked them."
<b>TUESDAY'S PLAYOFF</b> matchup between the Wildcats and Rams was played on Elaine McConnell Field at Patriot Park - located on the grounds of the Mott Community Center at the intersection of Braddock Road and Loudoun County Parkway in Fairfax. The contest had originally been scheduled to be played at Centreville High School a day earlier on Monday, but rain forced a postponement until the following day. The playing site ultimately had to be changed because Centreville's grass field was still too wet to play on.
So the game was played on the nifty turf field at Patriot Park, with none of the usual high school game commodities on-hand such as a scoreboard clock, a public-address announcer making pre-game player introductions, game programs for fans or concessions.
The game, which had an unusual starting time of 3 p.m., saw no scoring in the first half, although both squads had several good chances. But two minutes into the second half, Robinson broke the scoreless tie when sophomore Brigitte Kuter, following a Rams' corner kick, deflected a teammate’s shot into the net from close range. It was 1-0 Robinson.
The goal seemed to deflate Centreville, which then allowed two more Robinson scores over the next 10 minutes. Robinson senior forward Jensen Smith, during a Robinson rush at the net, scored on a header shot off the right side to make it 2-0. Then, several minutes later, Smith, off a crossing pass from a teammate, punched the ball in from close range off the right side to make it 3-0.
"We, unfortunately, had a mental lapse that killed us in the end," said Malebranche, of the three quick goals allowed.
The game had a feel of being all but over at that point. However, Centreville, about midway through the half, regrouped and got onto the scoreboard when Kyndall Finch headed a ball into the net off the right side. The score was set up Alexandra Myers' corner kick. With her left foot, Myers sent a high, soaring ball well across the goal area. Teammate Kristen Fadel corralled the ball and kicked it towards the goal area where Finch, a freshman, put it away for the score to get the Wildcats within 3-1.
Centreville made some good rushes thereafter but could not score again.
"Both teams played well and hard," said Malebranche.
Centreville played without its best player — Jenna Richmond, who is currently with the U.S. National Team in California. The senior was scheduled to be back in action for the Wildcats had they qualified for regionals.
"Obviously, them not having Jenna was a big factor," said Rike.
Said Malebranche, "It was tough not having her, but the girls did everything they could without her."
Centreville junior goalie Taylor Avery made a couple of outstanding saves in the first half. On one occasion, she charged out of the net to block a Robinson players' shot attempt from 12 yards out. Later in the half, during a Rams' rush on the net, she dove and blocked a close range Robinson shot attempt off the right side.