Maria Reed’s penalty kick sailed wide of the net in the first half.
The junior forward redeemed herself in the second half, knocking in an unassisted goal to lift Essex to a 1-0 victory over Rice Memorial in a well-played Division I high school semifinal Wednesday.
The top-seeded Hornets (16-0-1) will face second-seeded Champlain Valley in the championship at 10 a.m. Saturday at Burlington High School with a chance to post the first undefeated girls soccer season since CVU in 2004.
First, they had to survive a fifth-seeded Rice team that kept the game scoreless deep into the second half.
Reed atoned for missing a PK midway through the first half with a crafty goal with 17:24 left in regulation, beating Rice goalkeeper Macie Sicard to a loose ball in the box and chipping into the back of the net.
“I’ve been making all my PKs in practice,” Reed said, “but the goalie got in my head and I just missed it. I’m glad I had another chance.”
“It was just a matter of miscommunication,” Rice coach St. Ambroise “Azzie” Azagoh-Kouadio said. “Nobody said anything and they scored. That’s all it takes.”
The Green Knights suffered a 4-0 loss to Essex early in the season but soared into the rematch unbeaten in their previous 12 games, eight of them shutouts.
“They didn’t give up many chances,” Essex coach Bill O’Neil said. “For much of the second half, I thought they had the better of the play.”
Essex’s control of possession finally paid off with Reed’s tally, and the Hornets just missed a chance to pad their lead when Charlotte Stuart’s mid-ranged shot rocketed off the crossbar.
Rice’s runs into the offensive end in the waning minutes were defused by Essex’s stifling defense, and Essie Fiore finished with three saves to give the Hornets its sixth consecutive shutout and first trip to the championship game since 2008.
Sicard posted five saves for Rice, which outscored its opponents this season by a 55-15 margin.
“I give a lot of credit to (Essex) but I am very proud of my girls,” Azagoh-Kouadio said. “It was a fantastic group and we had a great season.”