PANAMA CITY BEACH — Soccer rewards teams that are first to the ball, particularly those that know what to do with it when they get it.
Arnold and Rutherford each controlled large chunks of their District 2-3A semifinal matchup in a girls soccer game, but it was the host Marlins’ superior ability to put the ball in the net that marked the difference in a 5-0 win at the Mike Gavlak Sports Complex.
Arnold, which improved to 12-11-1, will travel to Choctawhatchee on Friday to play Choctaw or Milton at 7 p.m. in the district finals. The victory also ensured the Marlins a place in the Region 1-2A quarterfinals at a site to be determined.
The Marlins recovered from a sluggish first half with four goals after halftime. The final score was not indicative of how much of the game progressed, as Rutherford did its best to match or surpass Arnold’s intensity.
The Marlins secured a 1-0 lead in the game’s ninth minute against Rutherford. Chelsea Wiser redirected Annelise Mitchell’s corner kick at the top of the 18-yard box, and Kelli Crowley outhustled Rutherford’s defense to the ball to boot the ball into the net and break the scoreless tie.
Rutherford, which finished 5-12-2 one year removed from a winless season, wrestled control away from the Marlins and amassed several scoring opportunities over the first half’s final 20 minutes. Kiaya Henry, Alexandria Folsum and Cheyenne Beck all narrowly missed shots high or wide.
“For those 20 minutes I thought we played outstanding,” Beck said, adding that she believes the program is on the rise under coach Matt Gerlach. “We were first to all the balls.”
The Marlins reversed the tide in the second half with a concerted effort to press their attack and put shots on goal. Rams goalkeeper Hannah Gildner and her teammates were resilient, but the volume of shots Arnold generated eventually led to goals. Crowley’s second goal was scored on a penalty kick in the 62nd minute.
“We picked it up in the second half, that’s for sure,” said Alicia Alvey, whose primal scream punctuated a gorgeous corner kick in the 68th minute that curved perfectly inside the far post for Arnold’s third goal.
Brooke Jaworski scored two minutes after Alvey’s goal with a low screamer off her right foot for a 4-0 margin, and Jaclynn Lehtio capped the scoring with a breakaway goal in the 75th minute following Alexa Schultz’s long pass out of the back row.
Arnold was playing its fourth game since early last week, and the Marlins will need fresh legs in the district championship. Arnold split two games with Milton this season and defeated Choctaw twice. Crowley said both teams are “really, really good,” and Alvey noted the Marlins would not overlook either team.
“Just because we were 3-1 against them doesn’t mean we can take them lightly,” Alvey said.