No. 2 seed Dragons upset in semifinals

The Central girls soccer team couldn’t have asked for a better start in its District 6 2A semifinal game. Second-seeded Central jumped out to a 2-0 lead with a pair of goals in the opening 12:40 against Juniata and looked well on its way to advancing.

The rest of the game didn’t go as well for the Lady Dragons, though. Juniata scored a trio of unanswered goals to end Central’s run at a second straight district title with a 3-2 win Monday at Mansion Park.

“They were slow coming out of the gate. We took advantage of that,” Central coach Brian Campbell said. “We stress getting off to a quick start and jumping on teams early, but they settled down. Their movement off the ball was unreal.”

Juniata returns to Mansion Park for the championship game Thursday. The sixth-seeded Lady Indians play  top-seed Bedford, which beat Richland, 5-0, in the Monday’s other semifinal matchup.

Central’s season ended at 18-2.

“It was a great  year,” Campbell said. “We had hopes of getting back to the championship game and repeating as district champs. It’s disappointing from that standpoint, but the girls played their hearts out. They have nothing to hang their heads about.”

Kaitlyn Laird opened the scoring with a high shot to the center of the net from just outside the goal area at the 33:50 mark.

Olivia Smith took a pass from Laird 6:30 later and scored on a high shot to her left for the early 2-0 advantage.

“I’ve ridden a lot of buses. The girls seemed loosed and relaxed on the ride here and in warmups, but when the first whistle blew, we played lazy soccer and weren’t moving the ball quickly enough,” Juniata coach Brian Strawser said. “Central was pretty much doing what it wanted.”

After giving up the second goal, Juniata increased its pressure and started to possess the ball more, which resulted in a Lilli Reed goal with 14:36 remaining in the half.

“We started to press them as hard as we could all over the field,” Strawser said. “I felt if we could get within one goal by half that we’d be OK.”

Central nearly took a 3-1 lead late in the half. Laird had an open shot from the top of the penalty area, but Juniata keeper Mahala Laub charged out hard to make the initial save.

A Juniata defender slipped in behind Laub to knock away a Central shot off the rebound.

“That was a game changer,” Campbell said. “We always preach about capitalizing on opportunities. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to on that one.”

Juniata, which won the district championship in 2014, tied the game in the 16th minute of the second half. Josie Swartz got a step on the Central defense on the right side and put a shot inside the post.

“When they got the first goal, I sensed the momentum was changing. When they got the second, I knew we were in trouble,” Campbell said. “My hats off to Juniata. They’re a great program. They’ll be tough to beat for anybody.”

The game-winner came with 14:42 remaining. After a header hit off the left post, Sydney Sheaffer directed in the rebound.

The Lady Dragons had a pair of corner kicks in the final five minutes but couldn’t convert.

Central’s best opportunity to tie the game came with 2:20 left to play. Laub was called for stalling, giving Central a free kick to her right of the net from about 15 yards out.

Kirsten Laird’s shot was blocked by a wall of Juniata defenders, and the ball was cleared back to midfield.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen that called, but when it’s called, you have to defend it,” Strawser said.

SCORE BY HALVES

Juniata    1  2 — 3

Central      2  0 — 2

First half: C–Laird (unassisted), 33:50; C–Smith (Laird), 27:20; J–Reed (unassisted), 14:36.

Second half: J–Swartz (Reed), 24:18; J–Sheaffer (unassisted), 14:42.

Records: Juniata (15-6-1); Central (18-2).

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