FLATWOODS John Perry thought Russell had done it.
Eva Blanke's shot bounced off North Laurel's keeper's hands and across the goal line to put the Lady Devils ahead, 2-1, in the 66th minute of their state tournament quarterfinal on their home field on Monday night.
Russell, which was 2-8-2 entering the 16th Region Tournament and had never so much as scored a goal in the Elite Eight, let alone won in that round, led the undefeated Lady Jaguars there with just over 14 minutes to play.
"Honestly, I don't think North Laurel was really expecting us to play like we did," said Perry, Russell's coach. "We came out and shook 'em."
But the Lady Devils hadn't finished them. Meg Anderson had no intention of letting that happen.
The 13th Region Player of the Year set up Madison Dagley's game-tying goal just a minute later, and after 90 minutes' worth of regulation and overtime soccer yielded a 2-2 tie, Anderson's effort in the final round of kicks from the mark boosted North Laurel to a 4-2 advantage in penalty kicks. That sent the Lady Jaguars to the state's final four for the first time.
"We're just excited to go," Anderson said, gesturing emotionally with her arms and emphasizing each word. "It's an experience that no one at our school's ever had. We're all just thrilled to be able to go."
North Laurel (15-0) went ahead in the third minute when Olivia Rudder, tied for 10th in the state in goals, tallied her 31st on a carom in the box.
But if the state's highest-scoring team, which had 6.7 goals per outing coming into Monday, thought that was the beginning of another crooked number, Russell (6-9-2) stopped that notion promptly by dominating possession and chances for most of the rest of regulation.
The Lady Devils' Ava Quinn found an equalizer in the 58th minute on a penalty kick, and Blanke scored nine minutes later to put Russell ahead.
It was an out-of-the-ordinary experience for a North Laurel side that had played only two games decided by fewer than four goals all season.
"They spent a lot of the first half of their season being a second-half team, but because they have the talent and the athleticism, they've always been able to come back very easily at the start of their second half," Lady Jaguars coach Jessie Miller said, "after, ya know, getting their butts kicked at halftime by coach.
"But this was the closest game we've ever had, and I think it messed with their heads. It got them frustrated with themselves and with each other, and it took a moment to calm down and get settled in."
It literally was only about a moment before Dagley, tied for 15th in the state in scoring, knocked in her 27th goal of the season.
That was a rare slip by Russell's defense against the most prolific offense in the state.
"We watched the film on the Prestonsburg game," Perry said of North Laurel's 6-0 win over the Lady Blackcats in the state first round, "and we knew that they were coming with a lot of firepower, a lot of speed. I thought we did a great job of keeping (Dagley) at bay; (Anderson) gave us a fit.
"I thought we might have sealed the deal with that second goal that Eva had, but we let (Anderson) dribble coast-to-coast, and you saw what happened," Russell's coach concluded, chuckling.
The Lady Devils had two golden opportunities at a golden goal in the first five-minute overtime period, but North Laurel stopped Lena Blanke's run in the 82nd minute, and her strike two minutes later hit the underside of the crossbar and bounced out.
Russell keeper Raegan Williams made a diving stop in the second extra frame in the 89th minute to send it to the spot.
Dagley scored for North Laurel in the first round of kicks from the mark, and Russell's first try missed high. But Williams saved the next Lady Jaguars shot and Eva Blanke converted to tie it up.
Rudder tallied for North Laurel and Lady Jaguars keeper Ellisia Edwards snared the next Lady Devils shot to put North Laurel on top, 2-1. The Lady Jaguars' Maddi Mastin and Russell's Ryan Blanke each found twine in the fourth round, leaving North Laurel up one and giving Anderson the opportunity to finish it off.
"I was just like, if someone's gonna be in the fifth spot, put it on me," Anderson said. "Give me the pressure. I want it. If we go down, it's on me. I was (like), just set the ball down, just follow through, get a good hit on the ball and just end this (thing)."
She did precisely that as North Laurel converted four of its five shots and Russell made two of its four -- one saved and one over the crossbar.
"We've struggled with PKs all year," Perry said. "I didn't want it to go to PKs for that simple fact, but hats off to North Laurel."
After Russell's tough regular season and 3-0 loss to Boyd County in the 63rd District Tournament final, the Lady Devils outscored their next four opponents by an aggregate 18-1 and then came the closest any Russell team has come to the Final Four.
"We started clicking on all cylinders," Perry said. "I can't really take credit for that. The girls decided to play for one another, especially for their sole senior, Lena. And I told her at the end of the game, even though they didn't win, this is a pretty awesome way to end a career. Elite Eight State game going to shootout, that's pretty big."
Miller -- a 2011 Russell graduate whose maiden name is Frisby -- saw significance in not only what the Lady Jaguars did, but where and against whom they did it.
"It was a really strange experience being on the opposite side, the opposite bench," she said. "I haven't been back to this field since I left it senior night. It almost made me want to cry when I first came back.
"It's nice coming back and seeing everybody and being home again, but at the same time, it's even better to bring home this win for my girls that have worked so hard this season. It means a lot because I know what this (Russell) program is and I know what they're capable of and how hard they've worked, so to beat them, that's a big deal for me."
North Laurel meets Lexington Catholic on Wednesday in Lexington. The Lady Knights topped West Jessamine, 3-0, in Nicholasville on Monday.
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