Niebergall's goal, strong defense send Sunset to 6A quarters
There are plenty of tactical, tangible reasons why the Sunset girls soccer team is traditionally so successful in the postseason ranging from off-season conditioning regimens to in-season substitution patterns to player development and progression.
Perhaps at the heart of the Apollos playoff success, though, is the fundamental desire to stave elimination for as long as humanly possible. The Apollos have a huge ambition in mind and to get there, straightforwardly, they have to keep winning.
Sunset sophomore Stephanie Niebergall certainly doesn't want to go home early and watch the playoffs from the side. And when the striker got a chance to give the Apollos a lead and ultimately a win over Sheldon in the second round of the Class 6A playoffs, she cashed it in.
Niebergall scored a key go-ahead goal with 14 minutes and 30 seconds left in the first half and the Apollo defense did the rest, shutting out Sheldon for the 1-0 victory at Sunset High School on Tuesday. For the fifth straight season, the No. 2 Apollos will play in the 6A quarterfinals, this time against Grant on Saturday at a time to be determined at Sunset High.
"When it comes to the playoffs, there's a lot more pressure and everybody's a lot more motivated," Niebergall said. "We knew this game could've been our last. Knowing that makes us go so much harder. We know what the goal is. I'm having a lot of fun playing with this team and I don't want this season to end."
Sunset came up in customary playoff fashion, pushing the pace, turning up the tempo and taking the ball right at the Irish defensive line. Kendsy Carmichael and Niebergall attacked the net a couple of times and came up empty but nonetheless set a tone with their aggression. With 14:30 seconds to go in the half, Niebergall controlled a Carmichael pass on the dead run, downshifted to keep an Irish defender on her back and with another Sheldon center midfielder coming toward her, the sophomore corkscrewed a right-footed curveball that spun away from the Irish keeper into the right corner of the net to go up 1-0. Niebergall said her original plan was to cross the ball from right-to-left, but when the defense collapsed and time seemed at a premium to make a play, she went to the net.
"I was kind of panicking because I had people all around me," Niebergall said with a smile. "I just wanted to get the shot off."
The scoring slowed down on Sunset's behalf in the final 40 minutes. Sheldon brought its own aggression and intensity to the field and concocted a couple of close calls including one golden opportunity with 90 seconds to go in the second half. Yet, the Apollos' backline of Nadia Coates, Betsy Brown, Helen Skeeland and Keaton Lee limited the Irish to just one shot on goal. Sunset goalie Bridgette Skiba was a big factor as well, controlling the passes that came back her way, verbally directing defensive traffic and moving the Apollos up the field.
"They did a great job of digging it out and not letting them get behind us," Niebergall said. "They held up for us."
Sunset beat Sheldon for the third straight time dating back to last year's quarterfinal clash when the Apollos went on the road and upset the Irish in Eugene. That win spring-boarded Sunset into an all-time classic 2-1 penalty kick triumph over Jesuit in the semifinals just days later. Niebergall and company hope Tuesday's win over the Southwest Conference contender has a similar effect.
"We really want to make it to state and hopefully see Jesuit in the finals, but we're taking it team by team and looking too far forward," Niebergall said.