New year, new result: Briarwood avenges last year’s Final Four loss to Montgomery Academy to reach title game

Published 3:46 pm Thursday, May 9, 2024

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

HUNTSVILLE – After the Montgomery Academy Eagles scored their second straight goal to take the lead in the 45th minute, it looked as if history might repeat itself.

It was at this stage a year ago when the Briarwood Christian Lions lost to the Eagles in the Final Four at Huntsville’s John Hunt Park after conceding the equalizer and fell in a tight penalty shootout.

However, Briarwood rallied to prove it was a new year as they scored three unanswered goals to take the 5-2 win on Thursday, May 9 to advance to the Class 6A state championship game.

“It’s such a hard, long road to get here and we lost this game last year, so it’s nice to get by that and have a chance at a state championship,” Briarwood coach Ryan Leib said.

The Lions didn’t always trail in the match as much like their first two playoff matches, Briarwood pressed the attack from the opening kick as they sought to take the early advantage.

While Montgomery Academy mounted a solid defense, the Lions managed to break through for multiple chances in the opening 20 minutes.

After getting a solid run at goal in the third minute, Briarwood sent a ball into the box in the sixth minute that was collected by the Eagles keeper.

Taylor Matthews took a shot from the left wing in the ninth minute, but the ball sailed over the goal. Taylor Leib followed that up a minute later with a cross that was sent across the goal and just missed Matthews to go past the low left post.

Montgomery Academy missed off a corner kick in the 12th minute, and Briarwood went on the attack after that and won a free kick in the 18th minute.

Shortly after that, the Lions press finally broke through.

With Taylor Leib in the right corner in the 19th minute, she made a skill and a run towards goal before taking a shot on target. The Eagles defender tried to clear the ball, but it went straight into the back of the net to put Briarwood up 1-0.

Now with the lead in hand, the Lions ramped up the pressure even more with a missed corner kick and a strong shot that was saved in the 21st minute.

Then, after sending in the effort that led to the own goal, Taylor Leib took the first touch atop the box and volleyed it off the bounce to send the shot into the top of the net and take the 2-0 lead.

Leib tried for another goal just a few seconds later but saw her shot saved.

Montgomery Academy won the ball and got a corner kick chance in the 24th minute, and they scored off the set piece to make the score 2-1.

With it now being a one-goal match, Briarwood tried to get back on the attack and restore its two-goal lead, but the Eagles fought back to end the half.

A 27th minute shot curled to the right of goal and a 40th minute header off a free kick went across goal and out before Briarwood could take the 2-1 lead into the halftime break.

Three minutes into the second half, Zoey Eighmy drove and got a shot off the run, but the ball went over the goal.

Then, in the 45th minute, Montgomery Academy got another set piece opportunity off a free kick, and it converted the ensuing shot to tie up the match at 2-2.

That put pressure on the Lions to avoid a repeat of 2023, but they rose to the challenge and took the fight back to the Eagles to retake the lead.

Over the next five minutes, Taylor Leib made a pair of drives into the box to put pressure on the Montgomery Academy goal.

Briarwood built up its attack after a corner in the 53rd minute and missed a header, and a minute later, a forward pass was collected by the Eagles keeper.

Taylor Leib fired another shot atop the box in the 57th minute, and while it was saved, it continued the growing tide of Lions offense that soon culminated in a goal.

In the 59th minute, Taylor Matthews made a run and won the ball atop the box. She then sent a low shot through the diving keeper into the goal to take the 3-2 lead.

From there, Briarwood never looked back as it kept building on the lead from there.

Just two minutes after Matthews scored, Taylor Leib teed off from outside the box once again and scored her second goal of the day as the lead grew to 4-2.

Now sitting on a hat trick, Taylor Leib completed the feat 10 minutes later in the 72nd minute as she drove in and lost the defender at the top of the box before calmly slotting the shot into the bottom left corner to give her team a commanding 5-2 lead.

Briarwood had a few more chances after that, including a short chip shot by Matthews in the 73rd minute, a crossbar shot by Eighmy in the 74th minute and another Taylor Leib shot in the 79th minute.

With control firmly in the Lions favor, they sealed the 5-2 win and booked a spot in the state title game.

After the match, Ryan Leib credited the comeback to solid defending, winning 50-50 balls and overall not giving up with their backs against the wall.

“Within this game, we got ahead and then we gave up a couple goals and we could have crumbled and fell apart, but the girls did a great job staying focused and really played well that last 20 minutes,” Ryan Leib said.

Briarwood ended up outshooting Montgomery Academy 17-4, with 10 coming from Taylor Leib and five from Matthews as both goal-scorers led the way for the offense overall. Matthews and Katherine Lloyd each secured an assist as well.

After Taylor Leib’s three goals helped power the attack, Ryan Leib said he was grateful to have a reliable goal-scorer who can consistently contribute in big-time moments.

“She’s just great,” Ryan Leib said. “She competes hard. She’s a skillful player, can score goals. It’s nice to know as a coach that you got a player that can score goals when you need to and she’s had a phenomenal season.”

With the win, Briarwood advances to play Mountain Brook in the state championship game on Saturday, May 11 at 11:30 a.m. at John Hunt Park in Huntsville.

After falling on the road to the Spartans 2-1 on Feb. 15, Ryan Leib expects a tough fight from his fellow Birmingham area side and urged his team to bring the fight as well.

“I don’t really care who we play,” Ryan Leib said. “We’re just going to go out and play hard. We played them early in the season and so I know it’s going be a good game, good battle and we’ve got to fight hard.”