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Preseason match shines on a rookie

UNC’s Nicole Crutchfield rushes the ball while Washington Spirit’s Estefania Banini interferes with her progress. The two teams closed the match with a 1-1 draw. PHOTO BY DAVID WOLFEUNC’s Nicole Crutchfield rushes the ball while Washington Spirit’s Estefania Banini moves to block. The two teams ended the match with a 1-1 draw. PHOTO BY DAVID WOLFE  LEESBURG, VA — As the match started between the Washington Spirit and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels women’s soccer team at the Evergreen Soccer Complex, players who were not starters were bundled up in official Washington Spirit winter-ready warmup jackets. The starters were rubbing their hands together, donning gloves, their breath creating a fog in the air, jumping about to stay warm and loose.
By the end of two 45-minute periods of play, both teams were sweat-soaked, steaming in the cold air, and looking at a final score of 1-1. After the obligatory post-match handshakes, the players made a straight line for the locker rooms, skipping the warm down that usually follows. It was cold.
Preseason games are where rookies get their chance to earn a spot on the team while seasoned veterans need to prove they can retain their spot on the team. The Spirit opened their preseason playing against the Tar Heels, a team known for delivering national championships and professional players. They did not disappoint when playing the Spirit on this past Saturday.

The Spirit played their rookies, some of their starters, but none of their national team players, nor any of their international players who played in other tournaments in the last two weeks. Laden with rookies looking for a spot on the team, the Spirit women played with the enthusiasm of a championship game. There were the usual preseason jitters on the field as passes were missed and occasionally the ball was passed a long distance, to no one. At halftime, both teams were riding zero goals from the first half. There were lots of good players on the pitch but nothing outstanding yet. UNC favored the team bench side of the field with Maryland native Bridgette Andrzejewski typically leading the attack
Audrey Bledsoe, the newest keeper for the Spirit showed that she had hands like glue and feline quickness. She is one to keep an eye on for this season. NO shortage of guidance to the team coming from her. She knows what she wants and where the players are expected to be on the pitch. Opponents are going to have a hard time scoring against her.
In the second half, Spirit forward Estefania Banani did a fabulous job of moving the ball up the field. She is back and fast as ever. When she and Mallory Pugh get in synch, it will be nothing but goodness for the Spirit. Morgan Profit playing defense broke up more than one UNC attack. She showed no hesitation in her play. The star of the night turned out to be rookie forward Mallory Eubanks. What she lacks in height, she compensates with speed and footwork.
Was Eubanks supposed to be playing such a large area of the field? She played from end to end. Eubanks made interceptions, broke attacks, and showed off her soccer talents. No one stopped her enthusiasm for the match. Down 1 to nothing, the Spirit were frantic to level the score. In the 87th minute, Eubanks came through for the team. She slotted an open ball directly into the back of the net, tying the score at one all. It was her first goal of her National Women’s Soccer League career. The first person to bear-hug her for the goal was Cali Farquharson, followed shortly by the rest of the Spirit’s on-field team.
Eubanks said scoring that goal was “awesome and very exciting. It was great to get out there and play with such great players, to be a part of it, I’m just excited about it all.” She credited Farquharson with helping to put so much pressure on UNC up front. Eubanks scored the only goal for the Spirit making her the star of the evening.
The Washington Spirit play another preseason game against the North Carolina Courage this coming Saturday, March 17 at City Stadium in Richmond, Va. The team reports they have sold more than 2000 tickets for that match. The home opener for the Spirit will be on March 31 at 3:30 p.m. at the Maryland Soccerplex in Boyds.

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