Just so her teachers know, a dog didn't eat Claire Novotny's homework. But in the event that the Sage Hill School sophomore comes up a little short in the classroom on Thursday, some would suggest she has an iron-clad alibi.
Novotny fired in a booming shot from 31 yards out into the upper corner of the net to lift the Lightning girls' soccer team to a 1-0 overtime victory over visiting Paloma Valley in the second round of the CIF Southern Section Division 5 playoffs on Wednesday.
"Oh my goodness!" said a charged up Novotny several moments after the goal, which broke a scoreless deadlock and halted the game in the seventh minute of the first of two possible 10-minute overtime periods. "I touched it back and it was the end. I just shot it, everything, it was just the end. [The shot] just went in and everyone was running at me and everyone was screaming. It was the best thing ever!"
Novotny, who had a game-winning goal earlier this season against Academy League rival St. Margaret's, was so excited, she punctuated her postgame comments at various points by jumping up and down and holding her fists to her cheeks, literally squeaking out her words in a high-pitched delivery reminiscent of the most over-the-moon Justin Bieber admirer.
Asked if she was going to be able to sleep Wednesday night, Novotny immediately thought of a more pressing concern.
"It's going to be really hard for me to do my homework, probably," Novotny said. "I don't know how I'm going to do it. With everyone running at me and hugging me, it was just like, yes!"
Several Lightning players expressed their celebratory joy with a similar lack of inhibition. And why not? They belong to the first Sage Hill team to reach the quarterfinals since 2006, said Megan Cid, an assistant coach who addressed postgame media after Coach Mike Hammond left promptly to deal with a club coaching commitment.
"These girls wanted to make the quarterfinals so bad," Cid said. "We haven't made it past the second round in ... I can't remember off the top of my head, but it was quite a while ago. I know we lost to Maranatha in that quarterfinal and that was the only quarterfinal appearance that I can remember. Since then, we've hung around the first round or wild-card area. I think a couple of years ago, we lost in the second round."
The quarterfinals this year will mean a visit on Friday from No. 3-seeded La Canada (20-0-1), which handled Whittier California, 2-0, in the second round, after posting a 4-0 first-round thumping of North Hills Heritage Christian.
Sage Hill 14-5-4) got by its third playoff opponent by first holding its ground against the Wildcats (16-3-6), who had six of the game's first eight shots. The Lightning, however, kept coming and Novotny's game-winner evened the final shot tally at 15 apiece.
Until the golden goal, however, Paloma Valley had the more dangerous scoring opportunities.
"They were good," Cid said of the Wildcats, who saw two of their three captains miss time due to leg and hip injuries. One such absence was the reason behind the Wildcats playing the first two minutes of the second half one player short, until the lineup deficiency was uncovered by one of their players on the field. "They had three really good players in the middle who kind of moved the ball for them. They were dangerous, especially if those three girls got the ball on their feet with any kind of time or any kind of space. But our defense did a great job of reading the ball. [Sage defenders] stepped up when they needed to and they backed off and covered when they needed to.
That defense, anchored by junior goalkeeper Kekai Whitford (five saves), included sophomore center backs Rachel Jaffe and Tiffany Taylor. Additionally, sophomore outside backs Ida Ramezani and Jaclyn Gershultz were crucial in handing the Wildcats only their fourth shutout of the season. It was only the second time Paloma Valley had failed to score in a loss.
Offensively, forwards Juliette Singarella and Paige Burke, a senior and junior, respectively, were catalysts, as were midfielders Meg Crade, Janis Jin, Alexandra Mowrey, Julia Lowe and Lauren Thunen.
The goal was the result of some deft passing that Cid called the most incredible build-up to a goal the whole season.
"It was Mowrey to Burke, Burke back to Mowrey, then Mowry through to Novotny, so Mowry got the assist," Cid said. "I knew if Claire got that ball in that spot, to her right foot, I knew it was going in. [Novotny] has an incredible shot with good placement and good power."