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Late goals doom Hornets in Lower State semis

HILTON HEAD ISLAND 4, AIKEN 3

The postgame speech from head coach to players is never an easy one to deliver after a season-ending loss, and it certainly doesn't get any easier the later it occurs in the playoffs.

There are words of encouragement and appreciation. There is reflection on the season and, in the case of the seniors, on their careers. There is a message to the returning players about getting back to, and exceeding, this stage next time.

Victor Tice had a lot of ground to cover when he addressed his team following Saturday's 4-3 loss to Hilton Head Island in the third round of the Class AAAA playoffs. The back-to-back Region 5-AAAA champions couldn't quite complete their second consecutive furious rally, ending their run on their home field just short of a state semifinal appearance.

"Oh, man. Just proud of the heart that they showed and the will to win," Tice said. "Just the accomplishments of the last four years of the seniors, definitely the most decorated class that I can remember in Aiken High history. I just said that one game doesn't define how good we are, and one moment and one half doesn't show the class and the grit and the fight of this team, and how much we really grew."

The teams were tied at 2 until the final 10 minutes of the match, when a high bouncer was headed into the net by Hilton Head Island's Andrea Tapia to put the Seahawks ahead.

The Hornets (14-5) had just overcome two deficits in Thursday's 4-3 win over Bluffton to reach this point, and Carolina Pettigrew nearly snuck one past the keeper, but the Seahawks netted a huge insurance goal with under two minutes to play.

Kaylee McElwain scored off a corner kick shortly after, but there just wasn't enough time remaining for the equalizer.

Hilton Head Island jumped ahead quickly, scoring about 90 seconds into the match on a cross that went untouched into the net. Aiken responded just as swiftly, though, as Carolina Pettigrew scored her team-leading 22nd goal of the season to tie it.

The Hornets drew two penalty kicks in a span of two minutes as the Seahawks' defense couldn't contain their attack. Lindsey Malyszek's try was stopped, but Mallory Rich's found the net to give Aiken a 2-1 lead with 26:06 left in the half.

Hilton Head Island knotted it at 2 about nine minutes later, and the teams remained tied at the end of a fast-paced and physical first half of play.

"We've had some problems this year starting slow, and especially in the third round of the playoffs there will be a little nerves there," Tice said. "But I think we recovered well from that, and I think the physicality kind of helped us a little bit, too, to wake us up and get us involved. Hilton Head's a very good team, very well-coached, very organized. I think that we really didn't do too much adjusting for things in the second half, but I don't think we really needed to."

The Hornets' wide-open, run-and-gun offensive style had given the Seahawks fits in the first half, but they weren't able to duplicate that in the second - some due to adjustments made by Hilton Head Island, some due to fatigue at the end of a long season.

"I was super happy with what we did today," Tice said. "Soccer just sucks sometimes, and even though you play well you don't always win."

The loss was the last match as Hornets for eight seniors, including North-South all-stars Malyszek and Rich, and Tice praised their leadership. Now it's time to turn it over to a strong class of rising seniors, and Tice is encouraged by what his players have shown him during the season and in the playoffs.

"Just their guts and their grit and their want-to," he said. Their competitiveness is something I'm really, really proud of. That's something we always focus on, and I think this team has that in spades."