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GISA GIRLS STATE SOCCER PLAYOFFS: DWS girls face No. 1 Stratford in Class AAA Final Four duel tonight; TAE routed in Class AA Final Four by Frederica

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- Deerfield girls soccer coach Aly Joslin has implemented what he calls the "three-minute drill" this season for the Lady Knights, and here's how it works: Should his team ever get behind in a game, they have three minutes to score an equalizer goal.

Ideally, of course, he'd like to keep that drill shelved.

"I was joking with the team this week that maybe we're better off spotting teams a goal -- because it's worked so far," Joslin said with a laugh Wednesday on the eve of the biggest game of the year today: a showdown with Class AAA No. 1 Stratford Academy. "But the reality is we need to put the pressure on early and not sit back and invite them in. Getting behind to a team like this won't do us any good, even as good as we are with our three-minute drill."

That's the truth.

Because at 20-0-1, Stratford -- the defending state champs -- are not a team to toy with.

Stratford has been the cream of the crop of Class AAA soccer the last two years, and even knocked DWS out of state last season in the Elite 8 on its way to winning it all.

That defeat -- along with a 3-1 loss by DWS (13-4-1) to Stratford in a preseason tournament to start the year -- has left quite the bitter taste in the mouths of the Lady Knights, who last reached the Final Four in 2008 and aren't satisfied in the least with making it this far.

"At the beginning of the season, one of our goals was to make it to the Final Four, so, of course, we're totally excited that we've gotten this far," said junior striker Candace Cosby, who then stopped short before adding, "but we're not content one bit. Losing that game to them earlier this year -- and then getting knocked out by them a year ago -- really has made us want it that much more. And hopefully, losing to them won't happen again (today)."

Joslin has a feeling it won't. After all, the 3-1 loss was as close as a 3-1 game could be, and the coach said the score wasn't indicative of how evenly matched these two teams are.

"It was 2-1 with about 40 seconds left and we were trying to push up and score the equalizer, but they caught us off guard and went down and scored that third goal with basically no time left," Joslin recalled. "We learned a lot from that game, and I think we're more prepared to face them this time around."

To do that, however, DWS must find a way to neutralize Stratford's Hale sisters.

And, by the way? There's three of them -- each one arguably better than the next.

"Well, there's Lauren, the oldest, who is going to Valdosta State next year, and when she's really on her game, she can cause a lot of problems for teams," the coach said. "But I think we've worked out a new formation that's going to slow her down. We just have to keep the ball away from her.

"But even if we do that, then we have the two younger Hale sisters, Katie and Ali, to worry about. Ali has scored 47 goals this year, Lauren has 18 and Katie has 13 -- so between them, they've scored 78 times this season."

That's a lot of offense to try and stop, but Joslin feels his junior goalkeeper Katie Williams is up to the task. Williams, along with Cosby and several others on this year's team, were only in the eighth grade the last time DWS made it this far in the state, but both were starters on that team. Joslin said Williams not only has gotten "massively better" since then, she's one of the few edges DWS has in this matchup.

"I think in (that department), we have the better goalie," Joslin said of Williams, who he called "incredible" after Monday's upset of No. 1 Holy Spirit in Atlanta, making four game-saving stops to preserve the 5-3 win. "There will be a lot of pressure on her (today), but she's shown she can handle it."

But Williams doesn't just handle the pressure, she thrives on it. She said Wednesday night that she likes being the last line of defense and has been waiting all season for another crack at Stratford.

"I'm just excited right now. We haven't been to the Final Four since I was in eighth grade, and Stratford kept us out of it last year, so we've got a lot riding on this game and we definitely (want to win and get revenge)," Williams said. "There will be nerves, of course, before the game and probably early on, we just have to stay focused and slow those nerves and play the kind of defense we've been practicing and we'll be fine."

And even if they get behind? Well, there's always that three-minute drill to fall back on, which is run to perfection by leading goal scorers Cosby and Casey Kincheloe.

"It's a good thing to know we have (in our back pockets) if we get behind, and we did it the last game three times," said Williams, who watched Monday as the Lady Knights erased deficits of 1-0 (in 20 seconds), 2-1 (in less than two minutes) and 3-2 (in less than three) against Holy Spirit, then Williams pitched a shutout the rest of the way. "But, obviously, we don't want it to come to that. We're so focused right now on beating Stratford, I don't think it will this time."

Of course, to get ahead of Stratford, DWS will have to do it once again without senior leader Lauren Fulford, who tore her ACL in the second half of the Lady Knights Sweet 16 game -- for the gut-wrenching second time this season -- and will only be on the sideline today as a moral supporter.

But according to Cosby, that's good enough.

"Not having Lauren out there makes it way different because she led by example on and off the field," said Cosby, whose team started the year 4-3-1 without Fulford in the lineup as she recovered from her first ACL tear, then went 8-1 after she returned. "We've had to switch positions and move some people around, but we've adjusted to it and I think we showed that in our game Monday (against Holy Spirit). She was there supporting us on the sideline, giving us tips, and that's been a lot of help."

Joslin said Wednesday that the quick turnaround from playing another big game just three days after Monday's win -- which came on the road in Atlanta, some four hours away -- isn't ideal. But then again, his girls have battled adversity all season, and continue to rise above it.

"It's a massive day (for this program) and -- at least on paper -- it would be a massive upset if we won," Joslin said. "But there's no one on this team that doesn't think we can."