The Longhorns girls soccer team fell one comeback short of a miracle Friday — but in the process displayed World Cup class.
The fourth-seeded Lady Horns eked into the playoffs this year, only to face No. 1 seed Tucson Christian Academy in the first round.
But the initially tense Longhorns responded to Tucson goals and the spiraling pressure with one goal after another, battling to a 3-3 tie at the end of the second period of overtime play.
The game then went to a shoot-out from the penalty kick line, with a lone goalie on each team trying to block up to five point-blank kicks. Tucson finally pulled out the game observers had expected to turn into a blowout, winning the final shootout 4-2.
Candice Ayers proved the standout player for the Lady Longhorns, scoring one goal during regular play and a come-from-behind goal in overtime. Her efforts won her a berth on the all-state tournament team.
The 25 girls on the team played with heart and energy, never flagging — and always rallying one another with hugs, cheers and high fives.
The game had enough turning points to rehab a rock star and ended with the thriller of a shoot-out. However, Longhorn goalie Kayla Morgan, who had fended off top-ranked Tucson all night, couldn’t get to any of the four kicks it took Tucson to finally win the game.
But perhaps the single greatest moment of the game came after the final whistle as a dejected Morgan began the long walk back from the goalpost to where the team waited in the middle of the field.
Instead of waiting, her teammates ran to her, swarming around Kayla to offer comfort and congratulations for the evening’s heroic effort.
Later, the team hugged and comforted one another, while Tucson celebrated. But the just-barely loss turned the season into a triumph of character, for the underrated Longhorns.
The game could have been Hollywood scripted, starting with the opening mismatch.
The private Tucson Desert Christian accumulated a 12-4-1 season, and came into the night confident of extending a four-game winning streak. Tucson had the substantial advantage of an expensive club soccer program, that allowed the team to develop top talent 12 months a year, instead of just during the three-month high school soccer season.
Most of the top teams in the state now have players who participate in this private, regional league that hones skills year-round and draws more college recruiters than the actual high school programs.
Tucson fielded some of the top players in the western region, including Haleigh Powell, first in assists and shots and second in total points. Other top players include Caitlin Duran, third in scoring, assists, points and shots; Emily Holtz, second in saves and goals; and Meghan Harting, top in goals and fourth in saves.
By contrast, the Longhorns had a broad range of hard-working, consistent players, but few regional leading scorers.
Alexia Robles, Candice Ayers, Elizabeth Romberger, Claudia Hernandez, Bianca Valdes, Becca Branstetter and Natalie Black have all turned in solid performances this year.
Initially, it looked like Desert Christian was going to live up to projections, with the Longhorns taking the field tense and intimidated — afraid of making a mistake.
Tucson scored 10 minutes into the game, on a 30-yard shot.
But then the Lady Longhorns displayed what would prove an evening-long ability to rise to the challenge.
The Longhorns set up their first goal in quick response with an intensively practiced play.
Tanya Olsen shot from the corner back across field toward the goal, where Ayers head-butted the ball into the net past the outstretched arms of the Tucson goalie.
The goal gave the Longhorns the confidence they needed to turn the supposed blowout into trench warfare.
Tucson played all out, but the hard-running Lady Horns kept them at bay until Desert Christian yielded another goal just before halftime.
The Longhorn girls found themselves barely behind, with the prospect of victory suddenly at least plausible.
They came out playing hard in the second half, mixing headers, passes and collisions — from which they bounced to their feet. They ran all out up and down field at a pace that would have exhausted a greyhound on caffeine.
When Tucson delivered a hard foul in front of their own net, the battered but composed Romberger converted the penalty shot into a game-tying score, which sent the game into the first overtime period.
Once more, Tucson responded with a quick goal to the challenge mounted by their underrated opponents, who just refused lie down and die.
And once again, the Longhorns rallied, sending even the defenders who normally stopped at half field on the offense forward in a desperate effort to score a goal before time ran out.
This time, the exhausted but determined Longhorns got the ball down in front of the Tucson goal with two minutes left on the clock, provoking a scrum that would have done justice to a Manchester Rugby team.
When Tucson kicked the ball out of bounds, the stage was set for another Longhorn corner kick.
Once more, the shot went to Ayers — whose reliable forehead again delivered the must-score moment for the Longhorns — nearly on the buzzer, which tied the score at three each.
Unfortunately, the catlike Longhorns ran out of lives in the shoot-out.
The Tucson sharpshooters sliced the ball right, left and up, just beyond the fingertips of Morgan — who flung herself at the ball with abandon.
But two of the Longhorn shooters tried to cut their shots too sharply to keep it away from the impressive reach of the Tucson goalie. One just missed the corner and a second bounced off the goalpost and took a bad bounce away from the net.
That set the stage for Tucson’s triumph.
And for the heartening season-ending rush of 25 girls who played their hearts out and lost to comfort their heartsick goalie.
Winners, every one.