Walton (12-3-2) has just been crowned just been crowned Region 5AAAAAA champions after beating Lassiter 1-0 in penalty kicks last Friday, and it’s not because they score a lot of goals. They’ve played 17 games this season and only twice they scored more than three goals in a game.
It’s because its defense hasn’t given up a goal in regulation and overtime play in over a month. Etowah was the last team that found the net against the headstrong Walton defense March 25. The Lady Raiders won that game 2-1 in penalty kicks and posted five straight shutouts afterwards.
Going into the first round of the Class AAAAAA state tournament at home Tuesday against Dacula, Walton’s defenders are not expecting to change their stubborn attitudes. Because why?
“That’s not how you win,” senior Lysette Cooksey said with a laugh.
Walton plays a zonal defense — where players are assigned a certain area of the field to defend — and communicating and staying disciplined for 80-plus minutes are one of their bigger strong suits.
The Lady Raiders play four in the back with a defensive midfielder handling much of the duties. If an opposing forward should break through Walton’s strong barrier, Marquette-bound goalkeeper Michel Fernandez is normally good about cleaning it up.
“The first and most important thing is that we have fantastic defensive players,” Walton coach Sharon Loughran said. “They keep in good shape and we try to stay connected, compact and disciplined. We don’t like to panic and move the ball. Once we get possession, we like to hang on to is so that we’re not immediately on defense again. That’s kind of our style.”
Walton’s defense begins with Fernandez. The Lady Raiders may have three additional losses this season had it not been for Fernandez’s efforts as goalkeeper.
Highlights include a leaping effort to prevent the ball from reaching the back of the net in the final moments of Walton’s 1-0 victory over defending state champion Milton. She also had nine saves against Etowah.
Fernandez stopped two penalty kick attempts against both Lassiter and Etowah to help Walton win both. Other highlights also came away with nine saves against Etowah.
And if it hadn’t been for Fernandez’s ability to stop penalty kicks, Walton may have three more losses on the year. She stopped one attempts against Brookwood at the beginning of the season and went on to stop two more penalty kicks each against 5AAAAAA rivals Etowah and Lassiter.
“I’m not going to give away what I look for (during penalty kicks),” Fernandez said, “but I just read players and their body language.”
At the same time, Walton’s total number of losses may be higher if Fernandez doesn’t get the protection that she needs from the five players in front of her.
Cooksey, who is the center defender, is now healthy after tearing her ACL last season. Loughran said she’s not quite as aggressive as she had been in the past because of the injury, but her timing is better when it comes to stealing the ball from the opposition.
Maya Cherry is the other center back and is often difficult to beat in one-on-one situations. Sarah Hardin, also a cross country runner, plays the right side and can use endurance to her advantage. Lucy Sanders covers the left side and is arguably the best attacker of the bunch once she intercepts the ball.
But opposing teams often get turned away by defensive midfielder Erica Langhorne when they attack before reach the four players covering the back and is great at winning balls in the air.
“What makes them so great is that they are obviously talented individual players,” Lassiter coach Robbie Galvin said. “You can see how they collectively play together. There is great communication amongst them.”
When Galvin was asked what his plan of attack would be if Lassiter should meet Walton again in the playoffs, he said. “You, know, we have to keep pressing them and hope that they break. That’s all you can hope for.”