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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Murray's Abbi Graham and East's Mia Thomas compete in soccer in Murray on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017.
This win gets us ready. It gets us ready to play the top team in the state (Skyline). That is what we are looking to do (Thursday). We want to have a chance —Brady Smith

MURRAY — Heading into their Region 6 clash with the East Leopards, a game that promised to go a long way in deciding which school will claim second place in the region, the Murray Spartans were feeling pretty good.

After all, they had racked up six wins already this season, including three in Region 6. Murray had taken down Olympus, Jordan and Park City, among others, while drawing contests against Woods Cross and East. Even their loss to Skyline could be seen as a moral victory considering the class of the unbeaten Eagles. And yet, the Spartans were missing something.

“I think we have done a good job this year beating a lot of good teams and not great teams,” said Murray head coach Brady Smith.

The arrival of the Leopards at Murray Park Tuesday afternoon (East finished as runners-up to Timpview in last year's 4A state championship) provided the Spartans the opportunity to change that.

“I feel like this East team is a great team,” said Smith.

Led by Abbi Graham and Ali Berry, who each netted a goal, and the excellent play of goalkeeper Tasia Stevens, the Spartans defeated the Leopards 2-0.

“This win gets us ready,” said Smith. “It gets us ready to play the top team in the state (Skyline). That is what we are looking to do (Thursday). We want to have a chance.”

The Spartans quickly capitalized on the chances they were afforded Tuesday. Less than three minutes into the game Graham drilled a penalty kick, awarded to Murray due to an East handball. 15 minutes later Berry netted her goal, sending the ball sailing into the back of the net off the fingertips of the Leopards sophomore goalie Katie Liljenquist.

Almost immediately following that score, the Leopards changed tactics. Forwards dropped back into the midfield, midfielders dropped back even farther, and the pace of the game slowed considerably.

“We wanted to come out and take it to them the first 15 or 20 minutes,” said Smith. “We know we have the offensive power to score goals. Once those took place, we changed the pace we wanted to play with, the shape we wanted to play with. It frustrated them. You could see that. (East) had opportunities, but none of them were great.”

The teams entered the break with the score 2-0 in favor of the Spartans, a lead that Smith was concerned about.

“A two-goal lead is the scariest lead in soccer,” said Smith. “I told the girls (at halftime) that if they could come out and withstand their initial push, they were going to win this game.”

The Leopards certainly surged out of the gate to start the second half, and proceeded to dominate the ball for much of the period. East attempted at least 10 shots in the second half, more than half of which were on goal. Charlie Barta and Mia Thomas were responsible for the vast majority of those attempts, though captain Catherine Hill made herself noticed as well.

Through it all, the Spartan defense held firm, in large part due to Stevens.

“Tasia was fantastic,” said Smith. “What she has become, as a leader, was even more important. You have to have great leadership at the back.”

Time and again the Leopards attacked the goal, and each time Stevens gobbled up their attempts. Her most noteworthy save came midway through the half, when she punched a particularly threatening East corner kick out of the box.

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“She pushed the ball out with so many huge kids around her,” said Smith. “She wasn’t afraid of the moment. It was pretty cool to see her step up and make plays with all the pressure on her.”

In truth, all the Spartans stepped up and the result was a great and much hoped for victory.

With the win, Murray improves to 7-3-2 (4-1-1 in Region 6) while East falls to 6-4-1 (3-2-1).

Up next for both teams, Thursday afternoon, are Region 6 games. The Spartans travel to Skyline High School where they’ll face the unbeaten Eagles, while the Leopards host the Olympus Titans.