ASHEVILLE – For most of the season, Asheville High girls soccer coach Mike Flowe has avoided playing Gracie Smith and Jesse Smith next to each other.
As two of the Cougars best players, it often seems to be a waste to put the two Smiths (no relation) in the same part of the field.
But Wednesday against Reynolds, Flowe felt he had no choice. Possession would be key in the rivalry game, and containing Rockets star Halle Skibo is at least a two-woman job.
The strategy worked, as Gracie and Jesse Smith controlled play from the center of the field throughout a 1-1 tie with the Rockets, serving as proof of concept for a formation Asheville will likely have to use again in the postseason.
“I think this was our best game of the season,” Jesse Smith said. “We played really physical, and we had a lot of possession. … It wasn’t perfect, but I think we played amazing.”
Jesse Smith, a sophomore, is listed as a defender on the Cougars roster but moves around the field as needed, often being deployed on the wing where she can probe forward. Gracie Smith, a junior, is usually tasked with orchestrating the offense from the back as a defensive midfielder.
“Me and her have been friends, we have a connection,” Gracie Smith said. “I love playing with her. She’s physical. We know where we’re gonna go. She always makes the right move.”
Placing the duo alongside one another led to a more methodical approach from the Cougars, but it was effective.
Both Smiths frequently won the ball and had space ahead to dribble into, preventing Reynolds from building play consistently, especially in the first half.
“We’re able to combine a lot and stay connected,” Jesse Smith said. “It really helps to build the attack, but also defend. … We stay as a tandem.”
Skibo, though, made the Cougars pay for a momentary lapse in the 25th minute. The Iowa signee found some room on the flank, dribbled into the box and rifled a shot into the back of the net, scoring from a tight angle on Reynolds’ first real threat of the game.
But a few minutes later, Gracie Smith countered Skibo’s strike with one of her own. Standing over a free kick from 23 yards out, the junior felt the Rockets’ wall left her just enough room to sneak a shot past the far post.
“My mom [assistant coach Candice Smith] just told me to hit it low and hard, “Gracie Smith said.” So that’s what I did. “
The shot was inch-perfect, giving the Cougars a well-earned equalizer. Gracie Smith said she was particularly glad to get back even after feeling responsible for letting Skibo get loose on the other end.
“Gracie planted that free kick,” Flowe said. “That was beautiful.”
Asheville continued to control the rest of the first half, before the Rockets created a more even second half. Neither team could score over the final 75 minutes of regulation or extra time, though, leading to their second tie of the season.
“Both teams played really well tonight. Totally different than the tie at their place … which wasn’t very pretty,” Flowe said. “Tonight was a good game by both teams.”
Perhaps more importantly than Wednesday’s result, the Cougars proved they can succeed with the two Smiths in the center of the field.
Flowe felt their presence was the difference in the game, and with the challenges of the 4A playoffs looming next week, their ability to neutralize opponents’ attacks without sacrificing Asheville’s offensive abilities could prove crucial.
“The two of them were just winning all the balls and finding attacking players. They were awesome tonight,” Flowe said. “They were the heart and soul.
“I would imagine what we did tonight would be what we’ll need in the playoffs. So we’ll see it again.”