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Late comeback leads West Lauderdale back to title match

Feb. 14—The West Lauderdale girls soccer team won back-to-back state championships in 2016 and 2017 and in 2019 and 2020, and the Knights now have a chance to accomplish the feat a third time after they defeated Choctaw Central 3-2 to win the 4A North State Championship on Tuesday.

"It's been a long ride," West Lauderdale coach Brandon Rodgers said. "It's been a fun ride, for sure. We've lost eight seniors from last year's team, and I had a couple of season-ending injuries with starters going down with ACLs, so we lost a couple of players. I mean, it's taken us about all year to kind of get to where we're at now, to figure out where players need to be, and we're hitting our groove at the right time."

The Choctaw Central Warriors, playing with home-field advantage, scored first midway through the first half by lobbing a shot over goalie Haley Graham. Each team continued to attack and get shots off from there, but the Warriors' 1-0 lead held until they were able to put another ball into the West Lauderdale net with less than 20 minutes remaining in the match.

"I was just praying," West Lauderdale senior Anslee Mason, who was injured for West Lauderdale's run to the championship match last season, said. "God was with us all the way through, and he had our backs."

The Knights' championship aspirations were given life when they were awarded a penalty kick with about 7 minutes remaining, and the ensuing score cut Choctaw Central's lead to 2-1. The match seemed to be headed to extra time after West Lauderdale knocked in another goal with 5 minutes remaining, but the Knights ended it in regulation by scoring the game-winning goal at the end of the match during stoppage time.

"That's the first time we've come down from two goals like that," Rodgers said. "I felt like we had it. We created chances, but I knew it was going to be an uphill battle. Choctaw was out here and gave us every bit of a fight. It was a tough game, the chances were hard to come by, but the girls fought to the last minute to put the ball into the back of the net."

The Warriors put plenty of shots on goal, but Graham came up with 14 saves to keep West Lauderdale in the game. Lily Anderson, Maddie Kate Bunyard and Annisten Snider all scored for the Knights, and Katie Lank and Aubri Cooper each recorded assists. West Lauderdale will face off against Sumrall on Saturday with the 4A Championship on the line.

"Just really trying to stay sharp," Rodgers said of preparing his team for the 4A title match. "We've worked hard all year long, so we just want to stay healthy for these last few days, stay sharp and just make sure we're focused on the job ahead come Saturday."

Contact Christian Knox at cknox@themeridianstar.com