After Elmore County goalkeeper Mackenzie Stephens saw a free kick go just over her fingertips in the first half, you could see the frustration on her face. The goal from Holtville’s Ana Segarra put the Bulldogs ahead by a goal in the 22nd minute but Stephens was called on again and this time she delivered in the game’s most crucial moments Thursday night to give ECHS the ultimate win.

“My team is always going to be there for me,” Stephens said. “They’re always pushing me to be my best so I knew I wanted to get this one for the whole team.”

Elmore County (7-0-9, 3-0-2 Class 4A/5A Section 4) found an equalizer with less than seven minutes to go in regulation when Rainey Jones sent a cross just in front of the goal and Faith Crozier turned the ball in to send the game to extra time. After the two teams were held scoreless in the 10 added minutes, Stephens was sent to the goal line to stop the top shooters from Holtville (4-1-4, 2-0-2) in a penalty shootout.

“I was just trying to read the hips and see where they’re going to shoot it,” Stephens said. “I just knew I had to do that for my team.”

Holtville’s Hannah Westbrook beat Stephens on the opening penalty and Jones had her shot saved as Elmore County saw its playoff hopes disappearing. However, Stephens responded by saving a shot by Holtville’s Whitney Culverhouse and the score was leveled after Olivia Mitchell converted her penalty for the Panthers.

“It was one step at a time,” Stephens said. “I had to calm myself down and keep my energy up and my focus on the play.”

That was the final save Stephens needed to make as the next two Holtville shooters put the ball over the crossbar. Elmore County scored its next two shots and clinched the 3-2 win when Emily Spears found the top left of the goal with her penalty.

“We made that first stop, made the first goal and I was just thinking, ‘Here we go,’” Holtville coach David Lovering said. “But two of our best shooters went over the goal and their goalie came up big so that was tough.”

The victory was Elmore County’s fourth consecutive win and the Panthers now control their own destiny in a race for the playoffs. It also ended a three-game losing streak to Holtville.

“We’ve got all the momentum we could possibly want right now,” ECHS coach Angie Simmons said. “We’ve overcome so much adversity this year. We wanted to bring pride to our school. We wanted to bring it back to Lady Panther soccer and I think we did  that.”

After taking the 2-1 lead in the first half, Holtville continued to control the game throughout the first 20 minutes of the second half. When Elmore County needed to find a goal, the team sent defender Kendall Downey to a more forward position and the Panthers began to create more chances.

“We didn’t know if that was going to be a smart move,” Simmons said. “Holtville has a lot of speed but we needed to get something going and it worked.”

The Panthers are now 4-0-1 at home this season and the players clearly fed off the crowd’s energy late in the second half. Elmore County’s bench was standing and even singing throughout the game to push the players on the field to find an equalizer.

“Our MVP of the night was our bench,” Simmons said. “They never complained about not going in but we had to do what we had to do to win. They were always excited.”

Holtville will need Marbury to defeat the Panthers in order to make the playoffs but the Bulldogs do still hold the tiebreaker against Elmore County. Lovering said he thinks this game was hardest on the seniors because of the rivalry but there is still plenty to play for.

“We want them to keep their heads up because we have a lot of big games coming,” Lovering said. “We still have Valley and we still have Marbury in area games. We still have Senior Night. We still have a lot to play for.”