FORT WALTON BEACH — The ball found Rebecca Hayes drifting just beyond the left side of the penalty box, jostling for position.
A Fort Walton Beach defender was all over her, not allowing her space to breathe let alone get off a clean shot. A junior forward on the Choctaw girls soccer team, Hayes fired anyway, muscling herself into the slimmest of openings.
Arcing through the air, the ball sailed past the outstretched arms of Vikings keeper Trinity Chastain and buried itself into the back of the net to give the Indians a two-goal lead just one minute into the second half of their District 1-5A quarterfinal matchup.
The Indians’ celebration was short before the call from the sideline came in: "Keep pushing!"
En route to a 3-0 victory on an unseasonably warm Thursday night at Joe Etheredge Stadium, coach Aaron Wentz and the Indians weren’t going to call off their attack no matter what the lead was.
"With a crosstown rival, you’re not gonna ease up any," Wentz said. "These girls play with those girls in travel, and they’re not gonna ease up. They’re gonna play as hard as they can for the whole 80 minutes, which is what we stress to do anyway."
Indicative of that mentality, Hayes scored her second goal of the night with just 12 minutes left on a beautiful breakaway run. It was one of four shots on goal she took in the second half alone.
"She did what she had to do to finish," Wentz said. "Getting it past Trinity in that situation is not easy. We had a breakaway with another player later and Trinity does a very good job of closing that down.
"Becca knows her a little bit, so she knows what Trinity is gonna do and Becca was able to put ’em away, which was good."
The game’s opening goal also came courtesy of a breakaway. Senior forward D’Aun Riggs, a Florida State softball commit, was sprinting toward a 1-0 lead when she was fouled from behind. Sophomore midfielder Kendall Wilson took the free kick from 20 yards out and tucked it inside the left post.
"It was beautiful," Wentz said.
Fort Walton Beach (4-7-2 overall) had few answers facing elimination. Coach Ed Reyes, in his first year with the team after several years coaching travel ball in the area, said he saw the year as learning experience. Despite their record, the Vikings still managed to outscore their opponents 26-20 and made Gulf Breeze, the No. 3 team in Class 5A, sweat in a 2-1 Dolphins victory in early January.
"We were young," Reyes said. "We’re predominantly a sophomore team, and we have a lot of returners next year and a lot of good freshman coming up from the middle schools.
"I predict a good year next year. Next year will be our year."
For the Indians (8-11-1) next year will have to wait at least a few days more. Choctaw has a date with Gulf Breeze at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Gulf Breeze with a District 1-5A title game berth on the line.
In its only matchup with the Dolphins, Choctaw fell 5-2 on Nov. 8 in Gulf Breeze. Despite that result and Choctaw’s own middling record, Wentz believes his team is ready to compete.
November was a different time, a different team.
"This is probably one of the most talented teams that we’ve had here," Wentz said. "Our record doesn’t reflect the talent level these girls have, but they can play. If we can maintain that intensity level, we can play with anyone.
"I’m not gonna say we’re gonna go in and beat the No. 3 team in the state, but we’re gonna go make it competitive as much as we can."