The Kettle Run Cougars continue to play their best when backed into a corner – literally and figuratively.
The Cougars won again Friday by capitalizing on corner kicks and rallying from a halftime deficit. That's become their playoff routine, and this time it came with a bid to the state championship game.
Kettle Run defeated Lord Botetourt, 4-2, during the semifinals of the Class 3A state girls soccer tournament at Amherst High. The Cougars (14-5-2) advanced to play in the state final Saturday at Liberty University against Blacksburg.
"A really awesome opportunity," said Cougars senior Erika Blevins, who had two assists and a goal Friday. "I'm so pumped."
"It hasn't really sunk in yet – we're playing in a state final tomorrow," said fellow senior Taylor Decker, who had two goals and an assist.
Meanwhile, Botetourt's season ended with an 18-2-2 record despite holding a 2-1 lead over the Cougars in the second half.
"It hurts," Cavaliers coach Sean Goldsmith said. "It's like a knife to the gut."
If Decker was the blade of that knife, Blevins was the handle. They turned Kettle Run's 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead by combining for a pair of goals on corner kicks during a span of 87 seconds early in the second half.
Decker scored the first on a header with 30 minutes, 17 seconds remaining in the half and then converted a strikingly similar header for a goal with 28:50 remaining. Blevins served both corner kicks from the right side of the field.
"Taylor's just kind of got free run to attack Erika's ball," Cougars coach Elizabeth Martin said of their corner kick play. "And Erika just knows how to find her."
"I try to keep my kicks as consistent as possible," Blevins said. "I don't even look to see where Taylor is. I just trust her to know where I'm going to kick the ball."
On corner kicks, Blevins tries to arch the ball far enough away from the goal so it entices an opposing keeper to emerge from her post in pursuit.
"But she can't quite get on it," Blevins said. "It's like chaos in the box."
Blevins' first corner kick caused some confusion among the Cavaliers, helping open up a lane for Decker to converge with the ball. Botetourt goalkeeper Brandi Anderson ran out reaching for the ball, but it sailed over her hands to Decker's head.
"My defenders said they thought she got it," Goldsmith said of Anderson. "She normally goes up and gets those. The ball was just a little too high."
Decker's second header happened closer to the far post of the goal, but otherwise looked almost identical to the first – both coming from about eight yards out.
In fact, the goals were also reminiscent of Decker's scores June 6 during the 3A East Region tournament final, in which Kettle Run beat John Champe
, 5-2. During that game, she headed in a pair of goals off Blevins corner kicks to help the Cougars rally from a 2-1 halftime deficit.
"It's weird," Blevins said of the similarities.
The two seniors have undeniably become a devastating duo on corners. They credit their long history of playing together on club and school teams over the past seven years.
"We're just really in synch," Decker said. "It's one of the best feelings for me, knowing that Erika's [serving] me the ball. … She only misses one out of 100, maybe. So I'm really confident in her, knowing that she's going to get it there."
Kettle Run had seven corner kicks to Botetourt's four, while the Cougars out-shot Botetourt 18-16 (10-8 on goal).
The Cougars needed Decker's consecutive goals in the second half because it fell behind by one goal soon after halftime. The Cavaliers' Hannah Stuart scored off a pass from Sara Bane with 35 seconds remaining in the first half to tie the score, 1-1. Then, less than four minutes into the second half, Emily Barranco scored off a corner kick by Ann-Chappell Barkett to give Botetourt a 2-1 lead.
The Cougars, however, responded with three consecutive goals in a span of eight minutes to build a 4-2 advantage.
"It's just that motivation to rise above, to keep pushing and know they've got time on the clock to do it," Martin said of the rally. "They don't want their season to end. … They're making school history."
Playing in the state tournament for the first time, the Cougars will next try to win the program's first state championship. They will play at 10 a.m. Saturday against Blacksburg, which beat John Champe in the semifinals Friday, 2-1.
"We expect to win, but we don't want to get too cocky," Decker said. "We know Blacksburg is really good."
Earlier this month, Blacksburg ended Botetourt's 18-game winning streak by beating the Cavaliers, 2-1, in the 3A West Region final.
"Watching today's game, they ought to match up decent," Goldsmith said of Kettle Run and Blacksburg. But "Blacksburg's a very strong team – much better at changing the point of attack."
"Maybe tomorrow we won't get down a goal," Blevins said.
Danielle Contreras gave Kettle Run a 1-0 lead Friday with a goal off an assist by Decker with 17:26 remaining in the first half, but the Cougars still trailed at halftime.
Later, with 22:32 remaining in the second half, Blevins finished the scoring with a crafty strike between the goalkeeper and the left post while warding off a defender on her hip.
Blevins played Friday with shin splints that have afflicted both her legs this season.
"I've been icing eight or 10 times a day," she said. "It's really bothering me and hurts a lot, but for something like this, it's worth playing through the pain."
Blevins is also training in preparation for entering the U.S. Military Academy
, where she will play soccer next season. To give her shins a break, she practiced only sparingly over the past week. Plus, against Botetourt, she sat on the bench for the final 15 minutes of the first half and the final 17 minutes of the second half.
"She pushes through the best that she can," Martin said. "You can tell when she kind of gets to the point where she needs a breather. She's had a lot of games in a short amount of time and it's going to wear on your body."