A green golf cart sat on the edge of Field 18 at the BREC Burbank Soccer Complex in Baton Rouge, hoisting the only Louisiana flag left at the US Youth Soccer Region III Championships.
The Under-17 girls 97 Louisiana Fire Navy club from New Orleans stood as the final squad from the state, and in a 4-1 semifinal rout of the 97 Norcross Fury Premier of Atlanta, their strikers proved to be the catalysts in a second-half surge.
It was a relatively slow start for the Fire, though.
Both squads had rosters packed to the brim with future collegiate soccer players — the Georgia-based team featured a trio of 17-year-olds, including Vanderbilt commitment Kelsey Carrier, Alabama commit Elena Zang and University of Louisiana-Lafayette commit Tiffany Raygor.
Fire coach Stephen Mcanespie had a weapon of his own — Alexandra Thomas, a 16-year-old striker from Ben Franklin High School and verbal commitment to LSU. Thomas scored three second-half goals to lead the way to the final at 9:30 a.m. Thursday.
In the first half, the Louisiana squad created roughly five chances to come away with an early goal, but it was the Fury Premier’s Carrier who made her mark, scoring on a strike that whizzed by goalie Samantha Bourgeois.
With the score at 1-0, both clubs went to their respective tents for halftime to meet with their coaches and discuss a game plan for the remaining 45 minutes. When they returned to the field, the Fire’s strikers went on a rampage.
“Both forwards are dynamic,” Mcanespie said. “They’re strong, direct … but they’re also smart in how they play. We pinpointed a couple of weaknesses that we could match them up against. We ended up winning those little individual battles, and our strikers came through in the end.”
Thomas struck first, firing a goal past Fury Premier keeper Carlin Zaprowski.
Before the parents had time to finish the celebration, Thomas was driving back down toward the opposing goal, firing a shot with her left foot into the back of the net.
The deficit had been erased, and now the LA Fire looked to keep lighting up the scoreboard.
Fellow striker Kassandra Ortega was the next to get her chance, and she drove past the Fury Premier defenders en route to her second score of the tournament. Ortega was a spark plug throughout the contest as she constantly fought for possession down the sideline.
“(Ortega) works probably 10 times as hard as I do,” Thomas said. “She’s our engine, and she never stops. If you need someone to disrupt stuff, we put her in there, and she’ll disrupt everything. She works like a horse. I don’t know how she does it.”
Thomas capped the scoring with her third goal, destroying any hope for a potential comeback by the Atlanta squad.
For Mcanespie’s girls, it was the perfect way to propel into the regional final.
“Now we’ve got to go finish the job,” Mcanespie said. “We’ve only got to the dance. I’ve been telling the girls and they’ve been laughing at me, ‘We’ve got a ticket to the dance, so are you going to go there and dance, or are you going to stand and watch?’ So we’ve got to perform tomorrow, and whatever happens, I can’t be more proud of them.”