BY JESSE SMITHEY
The players couldn’t get their hands on the wooden-and-gold trophy fast enough Saturday afternoon.
When announced as the Class AAA state champions for the first time in 14 years, a ripple of elation surged through members of the Bearden girls soccer team and they rushed to grab the TSSAA’s first-place prize and hoist it as high as their arms would reach, each player on the perimeter of the huddle trying to at least get a fingertip on the award.
While that’s usually the scene following every state tournament’s end, this one felt a little different. For Bearden, anyway.
The Lady Bulldogs had been clamoring for this moment since their last state title in 2007. A program with a statewide reputation of soccer prowess finally had another strong measure of credibility coming its way.
Bearden defeated Memphis Houston, 3-1, in a soggy Class AAA state finale at CHI Memorial Stadium in Chattanooga.
“There’s a lot of relief in this (win), too. It feels like there’s been a target on our backs since scrimmages opened up,” said Bearden coach Ryan Radcliffe. “People understood we had a lot of talent coming back, and we were the target from Day One. To have to live through a season and survive through a season, with all the ups and downs, and moving back into the district with Farragut and Maryville and Hardin Valley, and still be able to surpass that and set records on top of it, it probably won’t hit you for a few days.
“It’s surreal. You see all the fans who were sitting on top of us at the stadium. It was an awesome experience. … you try to put it in your memory bank as one of those moments you’ll always look back on because you never know when you’ll get it again.”
The win Saturday also meant that Bearden (23-0-1), the No. 1 team in the country per the United Soccer Coaches poll, claimed an unbeaten season for the first time in program history.
It beat its three state-tournament opponents by a 10-1 margin.
“This whole journey feels completely unreal, from the beginning of the season to now,” said Bearden junior forward Brinley Murphy.
“I knew we were gonna be good but never undefeated and state champs. I’m so proud of everyone on the team and feel like we deserved this more than anyone and worked harder.”
Houston’s girls (15-5-2) hung tight for a half but two second-half goals by the Lady Bulldogs put the Mustangs away.
It came as no surprise Saturday that Murphy, a South Carolina commitment and the reigning 5Star Preps Player of the Year, put the Lady Bulldogs on the board first in the ninth minute.
But Houston got the equalizer 15 minutes later and knotted up the score before half. That was the first goal Bearden had surrendered since Sept. 28.
“We needed halftime to regroup. I told our assistant that we looked like a team that had just been beaten, because we gave up a goal,” said Radcliffe. “The girls had a shocked look on their faces when we gave up the goal, because we hadn’t been scored on in so long.
“I had to remind them at halftime that the game’s not over. We’re not losing. We’re still in a good spot. They were beating themselves up because they were frustrated with the goal we gave up.”
Bearden regrouped like their coach hoped they would.
Nyla Blue gave Bearden back the lead for good, though, scoring off a Liv Stott assist in the 42nd minute.
Bearden out-shot Houston, 24-8.
Bre Mendoza’s score off an assist from Andrea Adkins in the 70th minute all but clinched it for Bearden, rendering the final minutes a veritable countdown to the celebration.
Houston didn’t get a shot off in the final 10 minutes.
“Once it got under 10 (minutes to play), you could start to see Houston’s legs die down a little bit,” said Radcliffe.
“I had to remind the girls to celebrate when there was under 2 minutes. It was still a silent bench. I looked back and said, ‘Hey, it’s OK to celebrate now. We’re winning this thing.’”