Defensive struggle pits experience against youth

The soccer ball slips past the pack with seconds remaining in Thursday’s match. Union Grove goalie Mya Guyton corralled it to preserve the tie. (Mike Ramczyk/SLN)


By Mike Ramczyk

Out with the old, in with the new.

Not so fast.

No, the Burlington girls soccer squad, four-time defending Southern Lakes Conference champion, isn’t going anywhere.

That’s the case, for now, but the Union Grove Broncos, albeit young and inexperienced, are coming. And they’re bringing quickness and relentless hunger to the fight.

Burlington hasn’t lost a game in conference since 2014, and Union Grove head coach Sean Jung is well aware. When asked about his team’s history playing the Demons after Thursday night’s 0-0 draw, Jung knew exact scores from as far back as 2013.

The Lady Broncos had this one circled on the schedule all season, and Burlington coach Joel Molitor recognizes Grove’s talent level.

“They’re all freshmen and sophomores, and it’s a very scary thing to think about,” Molitor said about the youthful Broncos. “Every team we play in this conference gives us their absolute best. We have a big, old target on our backs.”

That narrative couldn’t have been better scripted Thursday at Union Grove High School, as perhaps the SLC’s two best teams clashed. Despite three reasonable scoring opportunities in the final three minutes, neither squad scored, and now both teams sit atop the SLC at 4-0-1.

Union Grove benefitted from Burlington miscues and missed chances in the first half, and the Broncos’ defense played nearly flawless soccer for 90 minutes.

“I feel pretty comfortable in saying we’ll run into each other again,” Jung said. “It was their pedigree, their

Morgan McCourt (6) and Alexa Panyk battle late in the second half Thursday night. (Mike Ramczyk/SLN)

juniors and seniors against our freshmen and sophomores. Our girls really fought, and we were behind the ball in the second half. But our girls tackled well and chased well, we scrapped, we fought, we did what we could. If we’re going to beat them, we’ll have to make some adjustments.”

Burlington controlled possession near the 80th minute, but the Broncos were able to create a corner kick around the 86th minute. A solid set-up led to a shot roughly 10 feet out, but sophomore Natalie Oatsvall missed wide left.

Later, a Burlington free kick from 40 yards resulted in a touch near the penalty box for Jessa Burling, who collided with a Grove defender and goalie Mia Guyton, but the ball caromed over the top middle of the net and out of play.

Finally, Burlington’s Morgan McCourt lobbed an accurate corner kick in the 89th minute, which ricocheted off two Demons before bouncing twice and landing in Guyton’s grasp.

It was a thrilling finish to a grueling stalemate that saw the young Broncos utilize the home turf surface to their advantage.

“I don’t think their back line made a mistake the whole game,” Molitor said about the Grove. “It’s very rare that a defense doesn’t make a mistake. My girls did exactly what we wanted. They did quick combinations and played quick and physical. We had three really good chances to score in the first five minutes. If we put one of them away, it’s a different story.”

Burlington is 8-1-3, while the Grove is 11-1-2.

The teams are tied record-wise atop the SLC, with the Demons owning a bizarre tie-breaker – goals allowed in the first half. Since Burlington hasn’t given up a first half goal in SLC play and the Broncos have allowed one, the Demons are one point ahead in the standings.

Jung credited the composure and ability of his young nucleus, which includes sophomore Alexa Panyk, the team’s leading scorer with 12 goals, Oatsvall (nine goals) and freshman Peyton Killberg (nine goals). Senior Mya Peterson is the one upperclassman, but freshmen Kendra Hoffman and Megan Barber round out the team’s top six scorers.

Defensively, Guyton, a freshman, has been pitching shutouts, while Carlista Panyk anchors a strong defense.

Nixie Grajera, Sydney Fletcher and Abby Lentz also provide physical back-end help.

“I’ve been incredibly impressed with their poise all season,” Jung said. “The situation doesn’t bother them at all. They show up every game. They take it right to teams. They don’t care who you are or what your record was last year. I even look back and I think, ‘Man, girls, take it easy.’ All these girls play on the same club. They’ve been really close this season.”

McCourt, who leads Burlington with 18 goals, mustered two shots, as did Burling. Ashlyn Barry, the team’s second-leading scorer with eight goals, managed a shot. The Demons totaled seven shots despite five corner kicks.

Cora Anderson had two saves.

“We want to repeat as conference champs,” Molitor said. “That’s our focus. We want to make sure we’re strong going into the playoffs, because I think we can make some noise.”

Burlington and Union Grove won’t play again in the regular season, but could meet in the SLC tournament, which is May 23 and 25.