SOCCER: Freshman’s free kick sends Monarchs to championship

The first-seeded Monarchs score on a free kick after 58 minutes of gameplay to beat the twelfth-seeded Bullpups, move on to the Division III valley championship

EXETER – The Exeter Monarchs had a force of nature on their side when they took on the Hanford Bullpups. Each gust of wind took the ball in an unpredictable direction ultimately favoring the Monarchs in the second half.

On Tuesday, Feb. 21 with a biting wind blowing against them and stirring up dust, the Monarchs played their Division III semifinal game against the Bullpups. The Monarchs dominated possession of the ball in the first half, but were unable to score. However, once they switched sides in the second half, the gusting wind was fully at Exeter’s back. With the wind in her favor, freshman Cooper Piepgrass sent a free kick towards the goal which was then headed into the net by a Hanford defender. The goal was the first of two in a win that locked in the Monarchs for the valley championship.

“Before the game we said to control the controllables,” Exeter head coach Darin Lasky said. “Play the soccer we know how to play. When we didn’t get the side we wanted I told them we’re going the other way for a reason. Apparently this was the reason.”

The reason it was favorable for the Monarchs to play into the wind the first half is that they were able to shut down the Bullpups when the Bullpups had the advantage, then take their turn. At the half when the sides switched, the Monarchs changed their formation from two forwards at the front to three forwards at the front. With the wind at their backs and a steady read on the Bullpups’ defense, the Monarchs just attacked the Hanford goal over and over. Eventually something would get through.

That eventually came when Exeter was awarded a free kick from the center of the Hanford zone. Piepgrass lined up and kicked the ball over the defenders, where it bounced in front of the Hanford goalie. It wasn’t a goal, but the referee whistled and called for a rekick, because the wind had moved the ball before Piepgrass made contact. On the second kick, a Hanford defender jumped up to head the ball away from the net, but with the strength of the wind, it bounced off her head and back into her own goal.

With just over 30 minutes of play left, the Monarchs needed to continue to shut down the Bullpup offense. The best way to do that was to continue to attack and the Monarchs stretched their lead to two goals with just a few minutes remaining. Senior Aleena Gonzalez dribbled the ball up the right sideline, by all but one Bullpup defender, and took a shot. It bounced back and Gonzalez passed the rebound to junior Daya Ramirez, who had run up the center. Ramirez took a quick shot behind the goalie’s back for another goal, which solidified the Monarch’s lead over Hanford.

“Once we got the wind at our backs it pretty much fell into place,” Lasky said.

The Monarchs will face the third seed in Division III, the Kerman Lions, who defeated the Central Valley Christian Cavaliers 1-0 while the Monarchs punched their ticket into the final round. The weather is supposed to continue to be windy with a chance of rain for the game on Feb. 24. The Lions are also in the Tri-County Kings Canyon league and have faced the Monarchs twice this season, losing both times, but the Monarchs won’t let their guard down.

“Both times they’ve gone up quick on us, which is super frustrating,” Lasky said. “We’ve gotten some good wins against them. The first one we were playing a lot better than we are now, but we’re back in the championship and we’ll take it.”

The Monarchs won the valley championship under Lasky in 2021, but failed to make an appearance last season. Lasky will hope to take home his second valley championship as coach of the Exeter girls’ soccer team.

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