Less than a minute into the second half of a scoreless game, Donegal's Mollie Hoffman ripped a 19-yard free kick past Elco goalie Nikki Walker to provide the only goal in a tense 1-0 District Three Class AA first-round playoff game Wednesday at Donegal.
The Raiders methodically fought back, but not with enough urgency or success until the last 10 minutes. Halie Parker's header off a Kady Yoders corner in the 60th minute was saved by Indians goalkeeper Kaitlyn Scheuing, who swatted it up and off the crossbar. It would be as close as Elco would get, despite collecting 10 corners to Donegal's none.
In the final minutes, the Raiders kept pushing forward. Sophomore winger Amber Hartranft worked free in the box for an uncontested left-footed shot from 15 yards with two minutes left that sailed wide. With it went the season as Elco finished 12-7, with Donegal (12-4) successfully running out the clock.
The Raiders lost four of their last five games to Lancaster Mennonite, Cedar Crest, Hempfield and Donegal. They scored just two goals in the four losses.
"You can't win if you don't score," said Elco coach Steve Keller. "But all four losses were to quality teams."
The loss to Donegal was eerily similar to Elco's game at Donegal earlier in the season when the Indians won 1-0 on Alexa Stubenrauch's free kick from 30 yards.
"It was almost an exact replay from our first game," said Keller. "They won the first game on a free kick and won this game on a free kick. That's a tough way to lose, because the ball is just sitting there. There's nothing you can do until it's kicked."
Hoffman's shot was high and true, up and over the Elco wall and outstretched arms of Walker.
"It was a great goal, a beautiful shot," said Donegal coach Scott Steffen. "It was a hard-fought game. Steve's girls played us tough the whole way. Elco always shows up to play. I wouldn't expect anything else."
For the Raiders, it was the final games for center back Amy Walker, outside back Morgan McNaughton and midfielder Amy Kreider, as well as assistant coach Derek Fulk, who will remain with the boys' team in the fall.
"We wanted to win it for coach Fulk," said Walker, a four-year starter. "We could have played better. The girls thought it would be like last year, when we made it to the district final (against Trinity). Making it to the district final was definitely the highlight of my career.
Keller knows all to well he'll have to find another center back to fill the shoes of Walker, who will be attending Messiah in the fall.
"Amy Walker is a great center back and a great player for Elco," he said. "I love her and obviously will miss her a lot."
Walker and Keller both said the Raiders' opponents grew accustomed to what they like to do. Last year, Elco got more late-game goals from players like Parker, Dayna Wilhoyte and Hartranft.
"It's tough playing somebody in districts from your own league, because you know each other so well," said Keller. "Last year, we had a little easier draw. Greencastle-Antrim came to our place and that got us going."
"Teams kind of knew this year what we like to do," said Walker. "We like to play it wide with Halie and by this year, everybody knew all about Halie."
The good news is Elco has lots of players returning next year, including Parker; her sister, Sydnie; Nikkie Walker; Yoders; Hartranft; Wilhoyte; Ashtin Nell; Delaney Houtz and Whitney Hoover. This season also served as a learning experience for highly-rated freshman midfielder Maddie Noonan, who saw plenty of playing time during the second half of the season.
"That's the great thing," said Keller. "We don't have to wait a whole year. We come back in three months with a great group of girls. Our junior class this year was strong."
Keller is hoping his returning players learned a lot during the past two weeks and benefit from the experience of having played in the L-L League and district playoffs.