University, Sacred Heart girls soccer strong in same areas

In a battle of two of the top forwards in the state and two stout defenses, third-seeded University High School is hoping to make that next step up the playoff bracket while second-seeded Sacred Heart of New Orleans is trying to stay on top.

Three-time defending state champion Sacred Heart (17-2-3) plays University (21-2-2) at Jeff Boss Field at 5 p.m. Friday in a Division III girls soccer semifinal playoff match.

Sacred Heart has played in 10 straight state finals. The Cardinals knocked out the Cubs in the quarterfinals in 2010 and 2011 by 8-0 and 1-0 scores. University took that next step in 2012 by reaching the semifinals for the first time since winning state in the mid 1990s.

“I feel like our team is stronger this season,” University coach Melissa Ramsey said. “We’ve got six senior starters who have a lot of playoff experience. We won’t be as nervous as we were last year in the semifinals. We’ve had lots of leadership, and the girls are working together.

“We respect Sacred Heart and their tradition. We’re going to go in and give 110 percent. Hopefully, we’ll come out with a victory.”

“We’re ready for a tough game,” Sacred Heart coach Tooraj Badie said. “University is a very good team. They have a dangerous forward up front. We have to be very careful that all their strikers and midfielders are covered.”

Senior forwards Sarah Martin of Sacred Heart and Annabell Simpson of University wear No. 9 jerseys. Martin has scored 49 goals with seven coming in the playoffs. Martin, the MVP of the state title game as a freshman, also has 23 assists. Simpson has 39 goals and six assists.

“Which forward can put the ball to the back of the net could be the difference,” Ramsey said. “Sarah Martin is an elusive player. She’s fast and has quality skills as a finisher. Annabell Simpson is one of our leaders, and we like getting her the ball.”

A transfer from North Carolina, senior forward Abbey Underwood has given the Cubs a big lift in her one season. Underwood has 27 goals and three assists.

“Abbey has been an amazing addition to the team,” Ramsey said. “She works hard and has good quickness. She’s an elusive player with good footwork. She can beat opponents on the dribble.”

Sacred Heart’s defense continues to be stellar. The Cardinals have given up just three goals in four years (17 games) of playoff action. This year, Sacred Heart has outscored its playoff foes 16-1 and University has a 17-1 advantage.

“Our philosophy is if we don’t give up any goals, we don’t lose,” Badie said. “Our defense comes first and has played well. Our offense has been hitting on all cylinders. The last month we’ve been playing our best soccer.”

Other players to watch for Sacred Heart include defensive anchor Miranda Lee, Megan Terrell, midfielder Ashley Pou, keeper Megan LeBlanc and sophomore M.J. Williams (17 goals).

Other University senior starters are defensive center midfielder Lauren McKowen, sweeper midfielder Laurel Chauvin and center backs Jacqueline Samson and Jessica Williamson.

“Lauren McKowen came back from two serious knee injuries, and she has great work ethic on and off the field,” Ramsey said. “Laurel Chauvin does a lot of the dirty work by winning balls and distributing. Jacqueline and Jessica are our two defensive studs in the back. They keep us organized.”

Freshman Elizabeth Bankhead, a second-year starter, is the UHS goalkeeper.

“One of our goals was to win district,” Ramsey said. “We beat a quality opponent in Episcopal, and that helped us get ready for the playoffs. We’re peaking at the right time. We know Sacred Heart is a huge test for us.”