The motto of the Stratford High School girls soccer team is "Get Better Every Day," and it was clear Wednesday night that the Knights have achieved that goal this season.
Stratford used penalty-kick goals from Katie Bevacqua and Maryann Olson and late-game saves from keeper Lynsey Phillips to pull off one of the biggest wins in the program's history, a 2-1 upset of three-time state champion West Ashley in the second round of the Class AAAA Lower State playoffs at West Ashley.
The Knights (11-10), who finished third in Region 7-AAAA, advance to the playoffs' third round for the first time, and will travel Friday to Dutch Fork.
"For us to finally be able to do this for our coach and for our school, it's really rewarding," said Phillips, a senior who recorded 11 saves. "We're on cloud nine right now."
The Wildcats, the top seed from Region 8-AAAA and state champs in 2002, 2003 and 2005, finished the season at 15-7-1, and lost despite a 20-5 advantage in shots on goal.
"We're a little shell-shocked right now," said West Ashley coach Drew McNeeley, whose team advanced to the Lower State finals last year. "But their girls came ready to play. They were passionate about the game, you could tell that before the game started."
The Knights were confident despite two close losses to West Ashley during the regular season.
"We've been getting better through the whole season," said 12th-year Stratford coach Peter Heusinger. "Our record doesn't show how good we are. The girls have been playing well the last half of the season, and we were totally expecting to win."
Stratford broke on top in the 32nd minute of the match, when senior forward Kaitlynn Mahan drew a foul in the box after a throw-in. Bevacqua, a senior midfielder, cashed in the penalty kick for a 1-0 lead that stood through halftime.
The Wildcats were in serious trouble five minutes into the second half, when Stratford's Bailey Walker was fouled in the box. Olson, a sophomore forward, went right corner on the PK to beat Wildcats keeper Bilan Williams for a 2-0 lead with 35 minutes left.
"That second penalty kick really hurt us," McNeeley said. "You never expect to be behind 2-0 on penalty kicks. But we had our chances."
West Ashley sophomore striker Taylor Coleman got her team on the board in the 52nd minute, volleying in a shot after a corner kick to cut the margin to 2-1 with plenty of time left. The Wildcats peppered the Stratford goal in the final minutes, but the Knights' defenders -- Hope Martin, Brooklin Justensen, Chelsea McAneney, Molly Redel, Brooke Domingo, Lauren Singleton and Bailey Walker, among others -- kept their composure, and Phillips was sure-handed in the goal.
"My only concern was keeping that ball out of the net," Phillips said.
Said McNeeley, "She really was exceptional. She went low for several saves, and there were no loose balls, no rebounds for us to take advantage of."