TAMPA — Wharton midfielder Fallon Vaughan’s left leg hurt so badly throughout the second half of the Wildcats’ Class 6A-8 district title match Friday night that she thought about taking herself out of the game.
For more than a month, the senior has been playing with a partially torn ligament in her left ankle. But with the chance to clinch Wharton’s first girls soccer district title in the school’s 14-year history, Vaughan planted her aching left foot, nicked a ball to the right side of the net, and sent the Wildcats to their biggest win.
After two 40-minute halves and a pair of 10-minute overtimes, Vaughan’s converted penalty kick was the difference as the No. 4 Wildcats claimed the district title over No. 3 Bloomingdale with a 4-3 PK edge after the teams played to a 1-1 tie.
“I am so surprised right now,” Vaughan said. “I did not think we could pull it off to be honest with you.”
A Wharton team ravaged by injuries — at one point, the Wildcats were without five starters — began the season 4-9, including two losses to the Bulls by a combined 4-0 score. Since then, they’ve won 10 straight. Bloomingdale’s goal Friday was the first allowed since their streak began.
“When we were 4-9, there was no finger pointing,” Wharton coach Denis Vukorep said. “There was no bickering. Everybody believed and they kept pushing forward and now we’re gaining that confidence. When you have a team that’s confident and stays together, it’s dangerous.”
And Friday night, playing on the fast-track artificial turf of Plant’s Dads Stadium, the Wildcats (14-9) held on by a thread. With 20 minutes left in regulation, Wharton couldn’t convert on its best scoring opportunity when Vaughan’s free kick from 35 yards out hit off the crossbar.
“I told my teammate, that’s probably the only chance we’re going to get, and it was the only chance we had in the second half,” Vaughan said. “We really didn’t have any opportunities. They’re a great team. They played great on defense.”
After falling behind on Sierra Siegel’s goal in the 72nd minute, Wharton needed a header in the box by freshman forward Laura Johnson, which came off Vaughan’s corner kick with three minutes left in regulation, to send the match into overtime.
“The positive about the injuries was that it gave other people playing time and other people stepped up,” Vukorep said. “Laura is one of the people who played a lot during the season, but as people have come back, her playing time has stepped back, but her contribution hasn’t.”
Bloomingdale took a 3-2 lead in penalty kicks, but Wharton keeper Heather Montgomery made a diving save and Ashni Dechenes converted as the Wildcats evened the score.
And after the Bulls missed the next PK wide, Vaughan stepped up and converted the winner.