MURRAY — Over the course of the last five years, very few 4A or 5A girls soccer teams have had more success or been more consistent than the East High Leopards.
East has qualified for the playoffs in each of the past five seasons, advancing to two semifinals (2013 and 2017) as well as a state championship game (2016). The Leopards have outright won their region — East took first place in Region 5 in 2015 — as well as tied for the region title (last year).
Through six games this season, the Leopards appeared to have picked up where all of those previous teams left off.
Heading into their contest against the Murray Spartans Tuesday afternoon at Hillcrest Junior High — the school is located across the street from Murray High School — East had racked up a 5-1 record, a top-five classification ranking, per the Deseret News, and a positive goal differential of 23.
“East is always a good team,” Murray head coach Brady Smith said.
That is what made the Spartans' performance Tuesday all the more impressive.
Graham and Wilcken were responsible for all four Spartan scores — Graham also assisted on one of Wilcken’s goals.
It was simply a statement-making performance.
“We are a team that can beat any team in this region. I think that is the big takeaway,” Smith said following the victory. “We play in a good region — Tuesday was the Region 6 opener for both teams — and I think there will be challenges every week with it, but now we have confidence. We are a really young group, but we are able to step out and do it. When we have confidence and have kids that believe, well you saw what happened. It happened today.”
The confidence that led the Spartans to net four goals against the Leopards was altogether lacking at the outset of the contest, however.
Through the initial 20 minutes of play, East looked by far the better team. The Leopards controlled possession of the ball, their midfield routinely squashing any Murray counterattack before it could start.
If not for the stellar defensive play of the Spartans' defense, especially Emily Mills and Savannah Poteet, the Leopards assuredly would have found the back of the net.
“They had more energy than us,” said Smith. “These kids came out a little nervous. We were playing an East team that is always good and you could see it in the way we were playing. They looked tight to me.”
Everything changed for Murray with a couple of substitutions in the midfield. All of a sudden the Spartans were a different team. A better team. The better team.
“We made a couple of substitutions and the shape in the midfield improved,” Smith said. “From that point on, I think they started to play the brand of soccer that we play. Haylie Jensen stepped in and played great. Hannah Lee started to make the right decisions with the ball. Then we started to get over the top.”
With 13 minutes remaining in the first half, Graham made good on the Spartans' improvement, netting the game’s opening goal on a penalty kick.
Eight minutes later she connected with Wilcken, via a through pass, for the Spartans' second score, as the junior beat East goalkeeper Katie Liljenquist.
The second half brought more of the same, with Graham netting her second goal midway through.
The senior combined with teammate Kylee Thompson to break down the East defense, ultimately sending the ball into the back of the net.
“Abbie is a huge advantage for us,” said Smith. “She does multiple things. She can hold up the ball, she can beat the defense 1 versus 1, and she has the ability to finish. She is that three-pronged forward that you have to have.”
Fittingly, both Graham and Wilcken were involved in the fourth and final Murray score. The Spartans were awarded a corner kick, which Graham took, and after the ball bounced around in the box it found Wilcken at the back post. The junior drilled it past Liljenquist to seal the victory.
“You saw today what happens when we have confidence,” Smith said. “We want to continue that.”