By John Lachmann
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Notre Dame had been waiting 361 days to face Lexington Tates Creek again.
That was when these teams last met and when the Commodores beat the Pandas in the state championship match in penalty kicks.
But after dispatching of Tates Creek, 1-0 in a state semifinal at Paul Dunbar on Thursday, Notre Dame is headed back to the title match for the third straight year.
“The girls – I think this is the most excited we’ve seen them all year,” Pandas coach Sara McSorley said. “I think they respect Tates Creek and the season they’ve had, so we knew it was going to be a tough game. Obviously, avenging that loss last year was part of it but they really were just looking to advance to the finals.”
Many of the same key players from that 2012 meeting were also on the field for this match. But the lone goal of the match came from a freshman – striker Christin Sherrard.
Pandas junior midfielder/striker Mandy Arnzen created the scoring chance as she eluded a defender and burst down the right wing toward the goal line. She then cut to the center of the field and left a drop pass for junior midfielder Carissa Dyer.
Dyer fired a shot off the crossbar, and the rebound came right to a wide-open Sherrard, who deposited it into the net with 33:47 left in the second half.
“Carissa hit it off the crossbar…the goal was wide open,” Sherrard said. “I was real excited – I just had to keep my head and get it in the goal.”
It was the 14th goal of the season for Sherrard – one of only two freshmen regulars on the team this season – and her sixth of the postseason. She has scored one goal in each of the Pandas’ three state tournament matches.
“It’s really exciting, especially being a freshman, scoring and taking us to the championship,” Sherrard said.
Notre Dame is headed to its fourth state championship in the last five years, and in the previous three, Olivia Voskuhl was in net for the Pandas.
Junior goalkeeper Courtney Hansel, playing in her first state semifinal, was initiated almost immediately as senior Mallory Eubanks – who has 37 goals and 22 assists this season – got open on the right side and shot from point-blank range just two minutes into the match.
Hansel passed the test, grabbing the shot cleanly.
“That’s a great test for a keeper,” McSorley said. “It really does pump a keeper up when they’re able to make that stop – it pumps a team up. But we don’t need to have a test like that every game.”
Hansel has been integral in the Pandas’ shutout streak, which has reached 10 matches.
“It (got) me into the game and mentally ready, but for the most part I was already ready before the game,” Hansel said.
Notre Dame has blanked 21 opponents this season and has allowed just nine goals in 27 matches, or 0.33 per game.
Tates Creek created the majority of chances in the first half, forcing Hansel to make three saves, all fielded cleanly.
“The first half I think we were nervous,” Sherrard said. “The second half, we came out after halftime and our nerves were down and we played the way we play.”
Notre Dame senior midfielder Maddie Tierney and Commodores senior midfielder Aaron Lankster had a scary mid-air collision, hitting heads as both leapt for a loose ball midway through the first half.
Both were bloodied, and Tierney left the stadium with a contusion above her eyebrow.
Tierney has a team-high 15 assists and takes the Pandas’ corners. Notre Dame seemed to drop a gear without her in the lineup.
“I was proud of our team – one of our leaders went down and was out for a while…and I think the girls responded well,” McSorley said. “Different people pitched in, and we were able to maintain.”
And not only did Notre Dame survive, it scored the goal with Tierney sidelined.
She came back into the game wearing No. 23 instead of her usual No. 3 because she had blood on her regular jersey, and she boasted five stitches.
The Pandas were the better team in the second half, and allowed just two shots and none after their goal.
Arnzen was the best player on the field the second half, setting up the goal, firing a shot just wide minutes later and seemingly controlling the ball at will.
“Mandy’s phenomenal,” Hansel said. “Her footwork beats anyone.”
The shots were 5-2 Tates Creek in the first half but were 5-2 Notre Dame after the break, as both teams finished with seven.
“The first half, I think they kind of startled us with the speed they had, but we were able to keep it together,” Hansel said. “And the second half we were able to come out strong and show them what we actually were.”
Only two Pandas shots made it on goal, but Sherrard’s gives Notre Dame a chance at its second state title in three years.
The Pandas lost in penalty kicks in 2009 and 2012 and won a state championship
“We’re a different team this year, definitely, but a lot of us were here last year and we felt that loss and took it to heart,” Tierney said. “It always feels good to come back and prove yourself and show that you are good enough to beat someone on any given day.”
They will face Louisville Sacred Heart in the state final at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
The Valkyries beat Notre Dame, 1-0 in penalty kicks in the 2009 title match.
HALFTIME: 0-0. GOAL: ND—Sherrard. SHUTOUT: Hansel (3 saves). RECORDS: Notre Dame 23-2-3, Tates Creek 21-5-3.