BY CHIP CIRILLO
Sylvie Keck hadn’t scored a goal all season.
She’s a center back, a defensive player whose main responsibility is to prevent goals, not score them.
But there she was, ready for her chance to score the biggest goal of Christ Presbyterian Academy’s season during the sixth round of penalty kicks in the Division II-A championship at Siegel Soccer Complex on a rainy Friday night in Murfreesboro.
“I’ve taken PKs before for travel [teams] and they are honestly the most nerve-racking thing you can do in travel because everyone’s eyes are on that one ball,” said Keck, a sophomore. “It’s just so crazy and it’s such a long walk, and it feels even longer when you’re actually doing it.”
The long walk to the penalty mark was symbolic of the marathon state championship that was scoreless through 80 minutes of regulation, two 10-minute overtimes and two five-minute golden-goal periods.
CPA and Chattanooga Christian both scored twice on the muddy field during the round of five, setting the stage for an unlikely hero from 12 yards out.
“Your heart is beating so fast and so [the ball] is going into the right lower corner,” Keck said. “And honestly it wasn’t that good of a shot. I practiced it so much in practice, and had it perfect where I wanted it to go and it was a pretty ugly PK. I’m not going to lie, but somehow, someway it went in.”
Chattanooga Christian goalkeeper Katelyn Dirkse stopped the shot initially, but it trickled through to the back of the net.
“I just had a moment of pure relief,” Keck said. “I was half-laughing because it was such a bad PK and half, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we can actually win this one in a matter of seconds.’ I just turned around and literally slapped my teammates, like, ‘I don’t know how that just happened.’ We were so happy.”
The Lady Chargers still had a chance to tie it, but Kayla Wegner’s diving save on the ensuing penalty kick gave CPA a 1-0 win and its first state title since 2012.
That capped a 19-0-1 season, giving veteran coach Tom Gerlach his first unbeaten team.
“We came close in 2016 with the guys,” Gerlach said of the 21-1-3 season that ended with a 2-1 loss to Christian Academy of Knoxville in the Class A/AA final.
“This year you didn’t want to jinx it, but you knew it was a possibility going in. You’d love to win them all, but as a realist you know that you’re going to be facing some pretty good teams.”
CPA outscored its opponents 100-10, taking only one yellow card along the way. The players also excelled in the classroom with a 3.9 grade point average.
“What they did is really unheard of, so these girls are really special,” Gerlach said. “They play with heart, but they play really clean. They might play aggressive, but they don’t come in with their cleats up. It says a lot about their character.”
The Lady Lions recorded their 14th shutout in the state final.
“We have two center backs that are college-level players,” said Gerlach, referring to Keck and Cece Pascarella. “And two outstanding athletes at outside fullback [Lillie Cooley, Grace Ann Glisson] a tremendous goalkeeper and a [good] defensive center-mid [Megan Lewis]. They were a defensive force.”
Freshman striker Caroline Betts set a national record with seven straight hat tricks early in the season and she finished the year with 14, highlighting her 48 goals. She debuted with 36 goals as an eighth-grader in 2017.
Molly Thorne added 20 goals and Caroline Moore scored 13, giving CPA three potent scorers.
“[Caroline Betts] has one of the best technical starting and stopping speeds that I’ve ever seen,” Gerlach said. “And she can shoot with either foot: left or right. The thing that makes her even more remarkable is she’s coachable.”
Despite all her success on the field, it was a difficult season for Betts, whose mother, Holly, was diagnosed with breast cancer in September.
“She’s always been there for us and been the strong one for us, so seeing her battle this is really hard, but it’s also amazing to see how strong she still was,” Caroline said. “The team was just a huge support and they were all there for us.”
Fortunately, Holly’s health has been improving daily and she’s getting back to her old self.
“I just had surgery at the beginning of October,” Holly said. “I’m feeling well. I found out that I do not have to have radiation or chemotherapy. I will be taking a pill for the next five to 10 years and will continue to be monitored. So we continue to pray and give it up to the Lord.”
Caroline inherited some good soccer genes from her dad, Jon, who was a talented midfielder during his high school days in Huntsville, Ala. He coached her rec team from ages 6-9.
“She began playing when she was 3 years old and just from the very beginning she has been a scorer,” Holly said.
Betts’ soccer instincts have helped her score 84 goals during her first two seasons with the Lady Lions.
“Honestly, I just think she reads the game super well,” Keck said. “She knows what the defender is going to do and it just makes it so easy for her to know which way to go and which place to play the ball.”
Gerlach rebuilt the CPA program quickly after arriving in 2015.
The Lady Lions went 5-6-3 the year before he got there and they’ve gone 72-11-7 since then, including A/AA runner-up showings in 2015 and 2016 and last year’s DII-A semifinal appearance.
“We’ve just kind of righted the ship,” Gerlach said. “If you love each other off the field, you kind of battle for each other on the field. Whenever everyone buys into what you’re selling, it makes the job a whole lot easier.”
Gerlach wants his players to perform with freedom and joy, so he tries to encourage them instead of screaming at them.
He coached previously at CAK and has won eight state titles in 16 years, coaching girls and boys. His combined record is 284-50.
Chattanooga Christian (19-4-2) finished second for the third time in four years as CPA ended its nine-game win streak.
“CPA is a very, very good team so holding them down to no goals was quite a feat,” Lady Chargers coach Cal Snellner said. “They’re very dangerous even in the sloppy conditions.”
The only blemish on CPA’s record was a 1-1 tie to Battle Ground Academy on Sept. 18. CPA won its last nine games despite losing Moore to a season-ending knee injury in the BGA rematch one month later.
She cheered on the Lady Lions in the state final from a wheelchair one day after her surgery.
CPA blanked Gerlach’s former team, CAK, 6-0, in the first round of the DII-A tournament before rallying twice from one-goal deficits in a 3-2 semifinal win over St. George’s on Thursday. Sophomore Meredith Finucane scored the winning goal with five minutes left for CPA, which had never trailed in a game before the semi.
Like most championship teams. CPA enjoyed great chemistry.
“They have gone through a lot,” Holly said. “They laughed together, they cried together, they prayed together. They are an amazing team.”
“Sweet Caroline” ought to be the unofficial CPA soccer song since there are four Carolines on the team: Betts, Moore, Avinger and Wamble.
The Lady Lions remain close even though the season is over as they try to encourage Betts.
“We’ve been texting on a group text, probably once an hour ever since the season ended,” Keck said. “We’re still going to be there [for Caroline]. Like, your journey’s not over, there’s still a long way to go.”
Photo from school’s athletics Twitter account