FLATWOODS Ashland knew it was coming — Russell’s Ava Quinn making a charge and drawing defenders, and Eva Blanke looking to capitalize on it — and the LadyCats worked in practice to stop it.
That’s a central enough part of the Red Devils’ game that they drilled it in their preparation, too.
Ashland prevented it well enough to remain tied with Russell 1-1 into the 75th minute of the 63rd District Tournament final on Thursday night.
But that was when the Red Devils’ dynamic sophomore duo got loose, and the result was a district-title-winning tally.
Quinn found Blanke making a run, and Blanke finished inside the left post to lift host Russell to a 2-1 victory.
“I always know Ava’s there, so I was trying to look for a possibility,” Blanke said of the late goal. “My coach always told me, if there’s anywhere around the 18(-yard box), any open spots, just take it, so I just shot.”
She scored, and Russell enters the 16th Region Tournament, which begins Saturday at Rowan County, with some hardware already in hand.
Quinn and Blanke linked up for both Red Devils goals in Russell’s 2-0 win over Ashland on the same field just eight days earlier, so the LadyCats prepared to stop that connection, Ashland coach John Cook said.
They were successful until Russell won an errant Ashland throw-in along the sideline and the Red Devils methodically moved the ball down the field in the 75th minute. Quinn’s through ball perfectly led Blanke past a pair of LadyCats defenders.
“That’s something that we work on in practice, making runs,” Russell coach John Perry said, “because we know teams are gonna center on Ava. She is a very unselfish player, she likes to get people in front of the goal, and Eva, when she’s in front of the goal and she slows down a little bit, she’s dangerous. We were trying to do that all night.”
The Ashland goalie got her hand on Blanke’s shot from the edge of the 18-yard box, but it still trickled inside the left post.
“They’re so good together,” Cook said of Quinn and Blanke. “That’s what we were trying to take away. The first game we played them — and that’s what happened to us on that last goal — we got caught up and didn’t take the runner. We got to ball-following.”
Cook was nevertheless upbeat as the LadyCats will also play on this weekend in Morehead. Hanging with the defending region champion Red Devils, who improved to 12-4-2, was a sign of continued progress, Ashland’s coach said.
“Oh my gosh, as far as I’m concerned, we didn’t lose,” Cook said. “I mean, yeah, (Russell) had one more goal than us, but we won because we competed all night, and from where we started the season to where we are now, it’s amazing. I could not be more proud of those girls than I am right now.”
The Red Devils broke on top in the 11th minute when Quinn hit a looping shot from just outside the 18 off the crossbar and a leaping LadyCats goalie and across the goal line.
Ashland (9-12) equalized in the 61st minute. Kenleigh Woods, responsible for 41% of the LadyCats’ offense this season, won a one-on-one with the Red Devils’ keeper, who deflected Woods’s shot near-post but couldn’t keep it from going inside the right post.
Ashland’s effort didn’t surprise Perry, he said.
“I knew that Ashland coming off a pretty (comfortable) win against Boyd County (3-0 in the district semifinals on Tuesday), that they were gonna bring a lot of energy to us,” Perry said. “I think at the beginning our girls played with a little bit of nerves, a little flat in the first half, then we started picking it up.
“(Ashland is) so young, and they’ve improved throughout the entire season; you gotta expect that they’re gonna be better than they were the time before.”
Russell got a great opportunity at taking the lead in the 68th minute with the LadyCats’ keeper having been pulled off her line, but Mary Beth Bolen swept two Russell shots out of trouble. And Ashland goalie Gracie Madden stopped Blanke’s rip three minutes later.
After Blanke put Russell ahead in the 75th minute, Madden dove on a Red Devils cross in the 77th minute to keep the LadyCats within one goal.
It almost paid off, as Woods was fouled just outside the 18 with a minute to play to set up a free kick.
But Russell goalie Raegan Williams and the Red Devils defense got perfectly aligned, and Bolen’s ball curved just wide left with no LadyCats close enough back-post to redirect it.
“If you have to have somebody back there, you want Raegan back there for that situation,” Perry said. “She’s calm and composed back there. There’s really nobody else that I would want back in that position.”
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