By Keith Knepp
LIGONIER — While the NorthWood-Lakeland sectional game at West Noble on Thursday night was technically a rematch of a game played 14 days ago, those who watched both contests might say it seemed more like a replay.
In both matches, NorthWood started by playing uninspiring ball, going scoreless in the first 40 minute frame. On paper, the Panthers were the better team but paper only gets you so far in a single-elimination tournament. In the first contest, Lakeland went to halftime with a 1-0 lead, which led NorthWood coach Tom Shields to send his team back on to the field during the break to run wind sprints to try to motivate their efforts.
Running wasn’t in the halftime plan this game, but whatever Shields said to the team during intermission must have worked. Seven minutes into the second stanza, junior Eva Sloat delivered a beautiful left-footed cross across the front of the goal box that was narrowly missed by a sliding Caitlin Knepp. Yareli Castro was ready on the back post, however, to gather the ball and get a shot off, which deflected off a Laker defender. Castro found the rebound and pushed it past the keeper to give the Panthers the first goal of the evening.
Lakeland spent the next ten minutes with a chance for the equalizer, but gave up the game’s second goal on a shot from distance by Knepp that sailed past the keeper, assisted by senior Abi Thornton.
Eight minutes after that, Knepp took a beautiful feed from freshman Paige Cronkright from the right sideline and sliced it across the goal box and just inside the left post to put the match out of reach.
NorthWood was able to bleed off the last 15 minutes of the match unscathed, giving the goalkeeping duo of Carly Mast and Emily Miller a clean sheet. Another fine effort was put in by the strong back line of the Panthers, including Thornton, Cronkright, Haylee Heflin, Lizzie Hilderbrant, Callie Johnson, Joslyn Miller and Fatima Ghaffar, which allowed only a single recorded shot on goal the entire evening.
NorthWood advances to the Sectional 20 championship match at 7 p.m. against the DeKalb Barons, who defeated West Noble 2-0 in the evening’s opening match. This is the fifth consecutive year the two teams have met in the sectional championship game with NorthWood winning three of the contests, including last year’s matchup.