CLEBURNE, Texas — Butler soccer is returning to the NJCAA National Tournament after a 2-0 win over No. 18 Hill (Texas) to win the Plains District Tournament on Saturday at The Depot at Cleburne Station.
Facing a heavy south wind with gusts up to 25 miles per hour, No. 11 Butler (18-4-0 overall) received first-half goals from Melonie Baca and Elise Leidersten within a five-minute span early in the half. The two goals were all the Grizzlies needed to clinch its seventh national appearance in program history.
Baca scored the opening goal in the ninth minute after Hill goalkeeper Orlanda Cardenas deflected a Paige Achey shot. From the right side, Achey hit a left-footed shot just inside the 18-yard box at a diving Cardenas, with the ball trickling towards the opposite corner of the box. After Cardenas got to her feet, Baca came in to hammer the loose ball through two Hill defenders and past Cardenas into the upper right-corner of the goal.
In the 14th minute, Leidersten scored her team-high 25th goal of the season after having a 20-yard free kick deflected by a wall of Hill defenders back in her direction. Leidersten then hit a 19-yard shot over Cardenas into the upper right corner to give Butler a 2-0 lead.
Butler had numerous opportunities to add to its lead, having a 23-7 shot advantage over Hill. While the Grizzlies failed to add insurance goals – even after having the second-half wind advantage – Hill never really had any strong scoring challenges, as all seven shots on goal were directed at Grizzly sophomore goalkeeper Bethany Reeves.
"Hill had a hard time getting out of the (first) half, even with the wind at their back," said Butler head coach Adam Hunter. "Fortunately, we were able to get an early goal there from Mel, and then Elise bangs a free kick off the wall, gets a rebound and probably scores a harder second shot than the first shot.
Butler extended its winning streak to six straight games, with the last five victories coming via shutout. The Grizzlies have now won all four postseason contests by keeping the opponent off the scoreboard, which matches the 2015 Final Four squad (Region VI semifinal and championship, then two opening pool play games at nationals) of four straight postseason shutouts.
"I think that's a testament to our back line, our goalkeeper, our midfield, and even today – our forwards joined in in defending the half for us," said Hunter. "For our region, I think it is why we probably excel. We had the lowest goals-against average in the league."
With Saturday's win as district champion, Butler clinched one of eight automatic bids to the tourney, which runs from Nov. 12-17 in Foley, Ala. The Grizzlies will receive their seed on Monday for the 12-team tournament, as well as the release of the four at-large bids.
"I found this challenge to get back (to nationals) a heavy challenge," said Hunter, who has guided the Grizzlies to all seven national appearances, including Final Fours in 2013 and 2015. "(It's a) fantastic accomplishment for our sophomores.
"For them to come to Butler and not play in a national championship would have been unfortunate for them," Hunter added. "I think I'm most happy for our sophomores to avenge last year's letdown when we got eliminated. To put our program in the seventh national tournament is a testament to our institution."
NOTES: Saturday's game was the first-ever meeting between Butler and Hill... The Grizzlies won their second district championship and are now 3-2-1 overall in district play. Butler won its first district title in 2011 enroute to its first national appearance in program history. From 2012 to 2017, the Region Vi champion received an automatic bid to nationals, with Butler winning five straight region titles before having the streak ended last season. This season saw Region VI lose its automatic bid, forcing a four-team district tournament with two Region VI semifinal winners receiving bids, along with the Region II and V champion. Next year, the Region VI champion will host the district tournament.