By Keith Knepp
LAGRANGE — “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” While that is the one of the most famous opening lines in literary history, coming from the pages of Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” it could also be used to describe the Lady Panthers non-conference match with potential sectional opponent Lakeland. In soccer parlance, however, it was the tale of two halves, and the better one definitely came second.
By all accounts, the visitors from Nappanee came out flat. The team was slow to the ball, often out of position and seemingly disinterested in finding the goal.
True to form, the Panthers gave up the first score on the evening on a banger from distance by Alivia Rasler in the 10th minute. Afterward, the heavy underdog Lakers attempted to “park the bus” with the intention of carrying the 1-0 lead for the remaining 70 minutes by utilizing all but their goalkeeper and striker on the defensive end of the field.
As unlikely of a successful strategy it seemed, it actually worked for the remainder of the first half. The Panthers could never get the ball rolling in the right direction as nearly every pass they attempted was either off the mark or intercepted by a defensive Laker. The frustration was palpable, both on the NorthWood bench and in the bleachers by the Panther fans who made the nearly hour-long drive to LaGrange.
In what could have been worse, the Panthers managed to straggle into halftime only down 1-0. The way the offense was playing, however, it seemingly might as well have been 10-0. NorthWood head coach Tom Shields was so upset with his team’s lackadaisical effort that instead of the traditional halftime rest and review of the first half, he sent them back on to the field for multiple wind sprints before addressing their in-game shortcomings.
Whatever transpired during the break seemed to work, as NorthWood came out looking like a different team in the second half. The passing was crisper, the possession of the ball stronger and the offensive push more noticeable.
Finally, nine minutes into the second half, NorthWood got its first break as junior Ari Topping got a clean look in front of the goal off a pass from freshman Kinsey Newcomer and sliced the ball past the Lakeland keeper to earn the equalizer.
That was what the Panthers needed to lift the lid off their scoring doldrums, as less than a minute later senior back Lizzie Hilderbrant came forward on the restart from her defensive position to nail a left-footed bomb from 25 yards out that crossed in front of the goalie and into the back of the net, giving the visitors their first lead of the night.
From there, the tide completely shifted in NorthWood’s direction. Lakeland’s strategy of only playing defense went out the door along with their hopes for victory. In the 59th minute, Panther junior Caitlin Knepp streaked down the right side of the field after receiving a pass from Topping, skillfully slide tackling the Lakeland defender who had stolen possession of the ball, getting back on to her feet and firing a left-footer that split the distance between the right goal post and the keeper’s glove.
Two minutes later, another pass from Topping would be misdirected by Knepp’s head to outmatch the Laker goalie and result in the fourth goal of the half for NorthWood.
Things got a little chippy from that point on, as the referee issued a few yellow cards to players from both sides. NorthWood’s relentless offensive attack resulted in several more shots on frame but none that tickled the twine, with the match eventually ending in a 4-1 road win for the red and black.
The Panthers improved to 7-3-1 on the season and will travel to Hamlet for a match with Oregon-Davis at noon Saturday.