HOUSTON — Four years building up to this moment, the Lady Guard are ready to finish it in style.
Katherine Stair and Janet Nwachukwu each scored to send Bullard Brook Hill to a 2-0 victory over Colleyville Covenant Christian on a brisk and bright Thursday at Awty International School in the TAPPS Division III state semifinals.
Brook Hill (18-0-0) plays Austin Veritas at 9:30 a.m. Friday back at Awty as the program seeks a second straight state title and first undefeated season four years after the program was created.
"We are excited and we're ready," Brook Hill coach David Collins said. "This was their goal four years ago when this group of seniors started. They have driven the bus for this team and this program and built us to where we are.
"This team is ready for (today). We are ready to win a state championship and we are very focused on that."
In the boys semifinals, the Guard suffered their first loss of the season, surrendering four goals in the second half of a 5-0 loss to Covenant Christian, the defending state champ.
"Today's game doesn't reflect on the season we've had and the way we've developed as a team and the way we've grown," said Collins, also the boys coach. "The future's very bright for the boys team — and so that's what I want them to focus on — is to be proud of the season.
"Today's loss hurts; it's tough to get beat, especially in the semifinals when we've had such a great season. But I'm proud of them. They worked hard today, just got beat by a better team today."
The Lady Guard dominated from the outset, with senior Kendall Wells firing a warning shot from the left side of the box a minute in.
Brook Hill outshot Covenant 10-1 in the first half but only had one goal to show as the Lady Cougars kept at least seven players behind the ball at all times.
The breakthrough came off a corner 21 minutes in. Senior Hayley Dumesnil sent in a driven cross that fell to sophomore Katherine Stair, who blasted it past Covenant keeper Lauren Bartsch high at the near post.
"That was a great ball in by (Dumesnil) and the defender miss-hit it and Katherine, she was right there and buried it at the front post," Collins said. "It was a great goal."
After the first goal, the Lady Guard searched for a second, with Stair close to doubling her tally when she cut inside but shot just high 12 minutes before half.
"I think the first goal loosened us up," Collins said. "I think both teams in the beginning were a little bit tight, not really playing our game. We were playing well and kind of had them buried in but once we got that first goal I felt like it really sparked us. We really kind of took over the game for the next 40-50 minutes."
At halftime, Collins spoke to his team about playing diagonal passes through the Covenant defense and seven minutes into the half Wells did just that, beating her marker and playing a pristine ball through to Nwachukwu, who took a couple touches before firing low to the far post.
The senior forward's goal made it 2-0, a commanding lead for a Brook Hill team that has allowed just two goals all season.
"Kendall put it right on her feet and she finished," Collins said. "That was really the nail in the coffin. I felt like that gave us the edge to finish up the game."
The Lady Cougars made a couple runs at the defense in the final 10 minutes but rarely called Lady Guard goalie Hayden Langemeier into action. Her first of three saves came on a free kick from nearly 40 yards out late in the first half.
With defenders Ari Assad, Lily Cool, Maria Moore and Elise Hawkins in front of her, as well as midfielder Kennedy Rose commanding the center of the pitch, Langemeier was only really tested once, when Adrianna Arce fired from close range following a cross from Rebecca Moore.
Brook Hill, which recorded its 16th straight clean sheet, will now match up against Veritas, which defeated Houston Cypress Christian 4-3 on Thursday. In the teams' last meeting two years ago, the Lady Guard won 5-2 in the regional finals.
"It feels good," Collins said of returning to the final. "The girls played really, really hard today and that's what got it done. I don't think we were as sharp today as we have been the last two games but our effort today is what got it done without a doubt."
The youthful Brook Hill boys team, which hadn't lost all year despite just two seniors on the roster, ran up against an experienced team starting nine seniors on Thursday.
Covenant (18-5-1) showed off its experience with a patient passing game that eventually wore down the Guard (14-1-3) in the second half.
"They're the best team in the state," Collins said. "They're the defending state champs for a reason. They have all their guys back, so they're a really quality team. I expect them to win it (today)."
Vicente Juarez opened the scoring in the first half while substitute Joshua Stith, in for Juarez who was injured after scoring his goal, added two in the second half. Jacob Garcia and Mark Hill both scored for the Cougars, who will play Houston Cypress Christian in the final Friday.
Brook Hill kept the game close in the opening 40 minutes, surviving an early onslaught that led to a shot off the post from Garcia and a goal called back for offsides.
Juarez eventually put Covenant ahead with 10:15 left before halftime, but down just 1-0 the game was still within reach for the Guard.
Showa Domia and Michael Omini linked up to give Brook Hill its best opportunity of the game to that point, but Domia shot wide moments into the second half as the Guard started to threaten. However, the Cougars scored a couple minutes later and Covenant pulled away with a two late goals.
"I felt like if we could get one, we could get another one," Collins said of his thoughts at halftime. "We came out in the second half and had a great burst of energy for the first 10 minutes, and had a couple of runs at them and couldn't get quality scoring opportunities. Then they got one and made it 2-0, and then the game kind of got away from us in the last 10 minutes."
Covenant's senior midfielders Jacob Garcia and Brooks Friedman dominated the center of the pitch and controlled the tempo from the outset, setting the platform for their team's victory.
"They control the midfield," Collins said. "Those two guys are seniors and going to get to play at the next level. They dictated the play for them and we knew that was going to happen.
"They just got us today. Those two guys are really good players."
Brook Hill will return all but two players next year, including freshman Omini and sophomore Victor Loolo, who combined to score nearly 40 goals for the Guard.
After watching the Lady Guard suffer a similar loss in the 2012 semifinals before winning it all in 2013, Collins thinks Thursday's loss could be the start of an analogous run for the boys.
"I think this is going to be a great opportunity for us to use it as a good springboard into next year," Collins said. "To do what we did this year I think is tremendous for them. We're so young and I'm looking forward to the future. We've got a bright future with this group of guys."