EAST MONTPELIER — Caroline Kirby recorded her third hat trick of the season Thursday, scoring all three goals against the flow of play during U-32’s 3-1 girls soccer victory over Harwood.
The junior midfielder has buried 15 of the Raiders’ 23 goals, leading her team to a 6-0 start. U-32 already cleared some big hurdles early in the season, but beating Harwood by two goals may be the team’s finest accomplishment.
“I was definitely nervous — I thought this would be the hardest team that we play,” Kirby said. “And they definitely (are) so far. They were a really tough team and it was in our end most of the time, so I was still nervous throughout the game. But it turned out well.”
The Highlanders offense squandered a few early chances as U-32 keeper Evie Moore (13 saves) worked overtime to keep the game scoreless. Raiders midfielder Claire Obeldobel filled in as a central fullback, allowing teammate Ireland Hayes to leave her defensive position to shadow Harwood scoring threat Tanum Nelson.
“We practiced that piece (Wednesday) and just knew that we couldn’t give Tanum time to turn and shoot,” U-32 coach Steve Towne said. “And any time she got the ball, I had Ireland with a man mark. And they did the same: Caroline had a player following her most of the game. Both teams knew coming in that if you’re going to get beat, you have to get beat hopefully by somebody else.”
Harwood threatened to open the scoring in the fifth minute. Moore blocked a 35-yard free kick by Nelson and then watched a second-chance shot drift wide of the left post. U-32 fired its first shot on goal in the 13th minute and HU keeper Amaya Rogers (nine saves) easily made the stop.
The Highlanders built a 1-0 lead in the 18th minute when Emma Ravelin showed off her speed and composure up the left flank on a breakaway. Ravelin took a few touches toward the left post and forced Moore to leave her line before kicking a low shot into the center of the net.
“The first 15 minutes it was just pushed into our end and we had to sort out the numbers coming forward,” Towne said. “It took us awhile to pick up some of their midfield marks. We left them free, and that allowed them to take a touch, turn and then put it into the box. So it put us on our heels.”
U-32 reacted to the goal with renewed energy up top, putting Harwood’s back line under sustained pressure for the first time. The Highlanders almost doubled the lead in the 26th minute, as Hayes blocked a shot by Nelson before Moore thwarted Aliza Jernigan on a second-chance opportunity. A minute later, U-32 made the most of a quick rush up the right side to tie the game. Kirby dribbled toward the top of the penalty area and beat Rogers with a laser to the upper corner.
”I got past a few players and then I saw an open shot,” Kirby said. “I was at the top corner of the 18 and I just took it.”
U-32 closed out the first half with a bit of momentum following a nice give-and-go between Tovah Williams and Sasha Kennedy up the left side. Kennedy also forced Rogers to make a bold run outside the penalty area to clear away another threat.
“At that point I think we were starting to pick it up,” Kirby said. “It was still in our half quite a bit and they were still getting a lot of shots on our net. But we were definitely in a better place than when we started off a little flat.”
Harwood coach Mike Vasseur was disappointed to be locked in a halftime tie after his team controlled so much of the first 40 minutes. He was proud of his team’s effort but knew that letting U-32 hang around was a dangerous scenario.
“We looked magical for the first 20 minutes,” Vasseur said. “I thought we played well, we possessed the ball and we moved well. We got beat on the scoreboard — it’s as simple as that. It was a really good game and kudos to U-32. They capitalized when we couldn’t. But it gives us a little fire.”
U-32 kept up the offensive intensity at the start of the second half, with Kalista Parton collecting a pass from Kennedy and ripping a shot on frame that was caught by Rogers. Kirby was tripped up outside the left post in the 48th minute, but the referees ruled that it was a clean tackle.
Both Nelson and Obeldobel incurred second-half injuries, requiring both teams to make on-the-fly adjustments. Kennedy came close to tucking away a goal in the 57th minute, but Harwood fullback Lyric Smith broke up the play with no time to spare Moore made her best save of the second half in the 59th minute, stopping a bullet from Ashley Proteau to the upper-left corner.
“Evie saw a lot of balls served in and she handled the ball a lot,” Towne said. “And honestly, it’s great. This time of year, I want her under pressure. Not that I want to have that much on her, but practice doesn’t really transfer sometimes into games. So you can knock all the balls at her you want and work on angles and work on everything. But when you’ve got players coming in at you like today, for her that’s great experience.”
The Raiders delivered back-to-back corner kicks in the 60th minute, but they came up empty-handed and then held tight as Nelson returned to the match. Rogers served up her top save a few minutes later, smothering a bid by Kirby after the U-32 standout dribbled past two Highlanders on the left side.
Kirby tucked away the game-winner in the 70th minute on a breakaway outside the left post. This time she lured Rogers to the near post before using a surprise cutback to push the ball back toward the penalty stripe. As Kirby lined up a shot she was chopped down from behind, resulting in an uncontested penalty kick. The polished finisher waited for the whistle and went right to work, directing a low bid inside the left post.
“I just try to go low to the corners,” Kirby said. “I don’t really know where the goalie goes — it’s kind of just guessing. But I guess it worked out.”
Kirby closed out the scoring with 53 seconds remaining. She settled a pass from Kennedy on the right flank and dribbled directly toward Rogers at the near post. At the last second, Kirby executed a textbook cutback, giving herself enough room to slot a left-footed shot across the goal line.
“My right foot is my strong foot, but I can use both and I practice with them both,” Kirby said.
U-32 (6-0) will travel to play Lake Region at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. Harwood (4-2) will visit Thetford at 4:30 p.m. Monday.
“We executed our game plan, with the exception of a few opportunities that they capitalized on,” Vasseur said. ”And then we had opportunities to score where we maybe took an extra touch, or we put it off the side of the net when we could have gone to the 6-yard (box) where we had other players coming in. At halftime we talked about staying the course.
“They’re so dangerous and you can’t give them any opportunities. In the second half, particularly on balls that were kicked high in the air, we didn’t win the head balls and it put us back on our heels. And with a team like U-32, you can give them nothing because they’re going to take the rest,” Vasseur said.