During the first of two 15-minute overtime periods of the Class 4 District 1 Championship between Jackson’s girls soccer team and Northwest, the Indians senior forward Natalie Miller went down with a lower-leg injury.
The game was tied 1-1 after the first 80 minutes of play, and Miller had scored Jackson’s lone goal of the match in the 37th minute with an assist from her sister, sophomore Katelyn Miller.
Miller was down for several minutes before being carried off the field by Jackson head coach Justin McMullen and a trainer. She even said she could not feel her shin for a little bit of the time she was down on the field.
Miller fortunately only ended up with a bone bruise, but she was determined to make a return.
While she was treated by the trainer, Miller turned towards the field since she could not take her eyes off the action. Still in pain, Miller walked back to Jackson’s sideline and told McMullen, “This is not going to be my last game.”
Miller made sure it was not by returning in the second overtime and scored the game-winning goal in the 105th minute for the Indians to win their third-straight district title and advance to the state playoffs. She was assisted by her sister Katelyn on the goal once again.
“It feels amazing — there’s no comparison,” Miller said. “Whenever I got hurt, I was just devastated. I didn’t want it to be my last game, and I was going to do whatever it took to continue to play. [Playing with Katelyn] is better than anything ever because we don’t have to talk to each other or look at each other because we know we’re there.”
Miller said her shin still did not feel normal when she was back in the game, but in her mind she had no other choice but to step up for her family.
“First and foremost perseverance — the whole team,” McMullen said. “We’ve battled some injuries here the last part of the season, and we’ve had a lot of girls step up. I looked at [Natalie’s] trainer and the trainer gave her the clearance — I wasn’t going to be the one to hold her back.”
It took Jackson’s offense 23 minutes to get its first shot on goal as Northwest was able to attempt a penalty kick in the 14th minute. Freshman Grace Lauman took the shot for the Lions, but Indians senior Laura Bertrand ran up and deflected the ball with her body.
Another big scare for Jackson came in the 31st minute when Lauman had a corner kick, which was hit in by Northwest past the Indians goalkeeper Emily Hermann. However, Lauman’s corner kick was ruled out of bounds and the goal was no good.
Following that near score, Jackson came up with a total of four shots on goal including Miller’s score with three minutes left in the first half.
“We talked about [Northwest] probably playing a lot of long balls in the air, and I thought our back line did a tremendous job,” McMullen said. “We have some injuries back there, but [senior] Taylor Nelson gutted it out tonight. Our whole back line did a good job of controlling those balls, and Emily Hermann did a good job of clearing off some balls at the end there.”
Another thing the Lions did schematically was double team Jackson’s forwards, which made it difficult for these players to get open and find clear lanes to the net. The Indians defeated Northwest 6-0 during the regular season, so they knew the Lions would probably do something different defensively.
“So we were trying to play some balls back down, and we played a little bit more direct than we normally play, which kind of wore us down a little bit,” Coach McMullen said. “We didn’t play our best game tonight, but in a playoff game it’s not always pretty. We’ll take it.”
Coming out of halftime, Jackson’s offense kept the pressure on and was able to get three shots on goal in the first 12 minutes. The Indians overall out shot Northwest with nine attempts to the Lions two.
The Indians finished the second half without a goal, though, allowing Northwest to tie the game at the 73rd-minute mark as senior Meghan Pemberton scored the goal to make it 1-1.
Jackson was able to get the ball in the net during the final five minutes as Miller kicked it in after an assist from senior Mikala Liley, but the goal was called back to eventual force overtime.
“We’ve seen a lot of teams try to be really physical this season to slow us down,” Coach McMullen said. “We have a lot of kids who are physically strong, but more importantly they are very mentally strong. We’ve kept our emotions in check. I told them, ‘Leave the screaming and things like that for me. Let me get after the referee and protect each other.’ I was really proud of our kids.”
Jackson (17-2) will now host Lindbergh (15-8) to see which team advances to the state quarterfinals with a trip to state on the line. The Flyers defeated Mehlville 1-0 in overtime to win the District 2 Championship. Mehlville defeated the Indians 2-1 in penalty kicks this season.
Jackson’s game against Mehlville was on the road, so having the home crowd should prove to be an advantage for the Indians. The last time the Indians hosted a playoff game was last season in the quarterfinals.
“It’s going to be amazing,” Miller said. “Last year’s quarterfinal game at home was the best game ever, so I hope this game is a lot like that. As long as we all just keep our head in the game and don’t let out because school’s out — I think our game will take care of it.”