A historic season filled with firsts for the Ashley girls soccer team ended in the NCHSAA 4A state championship as Ardrey Kell defeated the Screaming Eagles 3-2 Friday night.
Ashley's season was more than just a deep playoff run this spring; It was the furthest any girls soccer team at the school has ever gone. The state runners-up blazed past conference competition and displayed an undeniably attractive style of play this spring, pushing the limits on what a team with just three starting seniors could accomplish.
"This is the most supremely talented team that I've ever been a part of," Ashley coach Erik Graf said. "This team never gave up, there was never a time where they hung their heads."
The Knights dominated most of the first half, jumping onto the board early thanks to an onslaught of shots on goal. However, Ashley players wouldn't let a slow offensive start damper their attitudes. Sophomore Karina Peat blasted a shot from well beyond the box on target and scored in spectacular fashion in the 36th minute.
While tied 1-1 at the half, the Knights opened up the second period of play with speed, scoring in the 49th minute. Ashley would respond with its own goal in the 52nd minute as Savanah Manset drilled a penalty kick into the back of the net.
Those two goals, however, wouldn't prove enough as Ardrey Kell responded with the eventual game-winning goal in the 54th minute.
Senior defenders Ellie Zimmerman and Kenzie Farr may have had a sour ending to a storied season and career at Ashley, but both players loved every moment of the ride.
"I feel like we've kind of been underdogs in situations and people kind of overlooked us but this year we really put the pedal to the metal," Farr said.
"This is a team of some incredible players," Zimmerman said. "Being seniors, it was an amazing season. (Our teammates) gave everything for us, and we pushed as hard as we could. Hopefully, they can get it done next year without us."
Something was different about the Ashley girls soccer team even before the start of the season. Head coach Erik Graf, who's led the team for the past three years, loaded his squad's schedule with the most challenging opponents he could find.
"We expect to challenge for the conference title," Graf said before the start of the season.
A conference title, however, would only be the start of Ashley's historic season. After finishing the regular season with just one loss, the team cruised through the state playoffs' first four rounds, outscoring opponents 13-1.
But the story of Ashley's unprecedented success this spring shouldn't come as much of a surprise, at least it didn't to Graf and his players.
"Sometimes you have to see things to believe it's possible," Graf said. "It seemed like for a long time that we had the Sword of Damocles over our head, and it was just not meant to be. I told some of my players (before the season) that this team in 2023 would be the best team we've ever had."
While the Ashley girls soccer team's 2023 season concluded on a bitter note, the lasting foundation of success will not quickly fade from the program's identity.
"The future is bright, no doubt about that," Graf said. "What can you say? Look at our starting lineup versus (Ardrey Kell's) roster or Chapel Hill's, and we do have a bright future."
This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: Ashley girls soccer falls in NCHSAA 4A state championship