The permanent yardage markers on the football and soccer field at Moore Athletic Complex at Turner Fields make it easy to track just how long the runs are that Natalie Gorji makes for Out-of-Door Academy. The attacking midfielder excels when she finds a sliver of space and can slip between a pair of defenders and then wiggle her way behind the rest of her opponents to get a clean look at goal.
Her lone goal in Out-of-Door’s 3-0 win against Saint Stephen’s in the Class 1A-District 7 championship Friday started at about the 30-yard line — about 40 yards away from the net. She found the ball at her feet and darted between two defenders. As she raced away from her first challenge, two more defenders converged. She slipped them to go one-on-one with Kelsey Leskinen. The freshman launched a shot past the Falcons’ goalkeeper for the opening — and ultimately decisive — goal in the fifth minute.
“They play a lot of people forward and they play very quick. The biggest thing we’ve got to do is stay tight to their marks and stay close, compact,” Saint Stephen’s head coach Andrew Sopher said. “We kind of lost focus there for a moment and turned off, and you turn off for just a split second against the quality of ODA and they’re going to make it count.”
The Falcons kept the Thunder (17-0) at bay for the next 70 minutes at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal School before ODA defensive midfielder Madysin Opstal scored on a penalty kick and free kick in the 77th and 78th minutes.
Out-of-Door gets to play host to Naples First Baptist Academy in the Class 1A-Region 2 quarterfinals Thursday. The Falcons (11-6) will travel to Fort Myers to face Evangelical Christian on Thursday in the region quarterfinals.
Gorji’s fifth-minute goal was her 26th and she quickly became the priority for Saint Stephen’s defense. After a particularly active first few minutes for Gorji, Sopher sent extra help to her in an effort to keep her from finding space. It was tough to deny her the ball entirely, so the Falcons wanted to force her to pass it off as soon as she got it.
They obviously put players on her to try and stifle her a little bit, so we had to change that and change her role from scoring into more of a playmaker and distribution. We dropped her back into the defense a little bit more and became our playmaker, so that helped out a lot as well.
Bill Unzicker, Out-of-Door Academy head coach
The Thunder’s response fit with its plan entering the game. ODA head coach Bill Unzicker dropped Gorji into a defensive and playmaking role in the midfield to withstand Saint Stephen’s pushes. Out-of-Door’s defense, he said, had been shaky despite three straight clean sheets entering Friday, so he called a team meeting after the Thunder’s pregame meal.
“We talked about defense winning championships,” Unzicker said. “Attacking-wise, we’ve had a solid attacking group, and we’ve shown that with the goals that we’ve scored. So our focus has to be to be better communicating, to be able to get our shape better quicker and to have more energy when we’re defending.”
Saint Stephen’s put only five shots on goal and only one during the second half. ODA’s defense delivered with a bounce-back performance for a fourth straight shutout on its biggest stage of the season. Gorji wasn’t making runs, but she was answering the Falcons’ physicality and setting up the counterattacks from the midfield, which kept Saint Stephen’s from ever creating a sustained offensive threat.
“They kept pushing really fast and I feel like we needed as many people as we could back there,” Gorji said. “Someone who could be really physical, and get those tackles and get the breakaways really quickly.”
In the 76th minute, junior Abby Lagassee charged into three defenders in the box to draw a penalty kick for the Thunder.
Opstal stepped to the mark as Lagassee was helped off the field. Opstal launched a shot past Leskinen and all but ensured ODA would take an undefeated record into the region playoffs. A free kick goal from 35 yards out a minute later would only add an extra layer of assurance and three minutes after that, Out-of-Door hoisted the first trophy of what the Thunder hopes will be many more during the coming weeks.
“I was a little nervous for Madysin, but she put it in there and after that I was so happy,” Gorji said. “I knew we kind of had the game at that point, but up until then I was definitely very stressed out. They kept pushing.”
Class 1A-District 7
Out-of-Door Academy 3, Saint Stephen’s 0
Class 4A-District 11
North Port 4, Venice 2
Class 5A-District 8
Lakewood Ranch 2, Sarasota Riverview 1