By BRIAN CUNNIFF
WILDWOOD — Two flashes of magical skill from one of the most underrated players in South Jersey sent the Wildwood High School girls soccer team to a thrilling victory Friday evening.
Kaydence Oakley’s two goals — the second scored in the 74th minute — allowed the Lady Warriors to escape with a 2-1 victory over a Lower Cape May team that had dominated play for much of the contest, particularly in the second half.
“Two very, very pretty goals,” Wildwood coach Mark Scarpa said.
Oakley, a junior center midfielder, started the play that led to the winning goal by bombing a long ball down the left flank. Teammate Kalei Budney eventually won the ball off a Lower defender along the byline to the left of the goal and eventually popped a pass back to Oakley, who was making a run into the top of the penalty area. After a brilliant touch that immediately settled the bouncing ball, Oakley released a laser of a shot with her left foot that rippled into the right side panel of goal just below the crossbar.
The goal was Oakley’s 23rd of the season through 14 games.
“Kaydence is definitely a special player, no doubt,” Scarpa said. “Anyone who looks at our stat sheet can see she scores most of our goals. But like I told the ladies after the game, this was one of the most complete team efforts I’ve ever seen them put together. If Kalei Budney doesn’t put in the effort and save that ball off the end line, Kaydence doesn’t get a chance to win the game.”
Lower opened the scoring late in the first half when Joanna Bonney calmly slotted the ball into the right corner on a penalty kick after Wildwood was whistled for a hand ball in the penalty area.
Wildwood quickly answered just a few minutes later when a left-footed strike from Oakley from 19 yards found space between the outstretched fingers of Lower goalkeeper Kaia Ray and the crossbar.
Lower Cape May slowly began to control the contest from there as Wildwood’s midfielders were forced deeper toward their back line in an effort to deal with continuous Lady Tiger pressure. But most of Lower Cape May’s chances at goal came from the top or just outside of the penalty area as the Lady Warrior back line, led by center backs Kara McLaughlin and Maya Benichou, stood tall and consistently held the 18-yard line. That allowed sure-handed Wildwood goalkeeper Imene Fathi, forced into the position due to injury to regular starter Sanaia Stroman-Hills, to make all the stops during the run of play.
“We have a little bit of speed on our back line this year so we have the confidence of playing up higher,” Scarpa said. “We also have some intelligent kids back there who can recognize when teams are trying to play through our center backs. We’ve been able to work on how to defend against that. Speed helps and we have some of that back there. Our defense has held us in a lot of games this year and they certainly can’t be overlooked in this one.”
That defensive effort set the stage for Wildwood to generate its only real chance of the second half, which Oakley buried with her incredible strike from 15 yards with 6:33 showing on the second-half clock.
“That second goal was world class,” Lower coach Darren Rutherford said. “Kaydence is a quality player. She has the technical ability and she can rip a ball with both feet and we saw that today. That second one, no one was saving that. The first one, we weren’t ready for her to take that quick of a shot but when the ball’s at her feet she’s ready to go.
“We needed to make sure we pushed her back and to the sides. I thought we did that very well in the second half but then she got one to drop to her foot and she hit it well.”
Lower Cape May (3-9) was left frustrated with the result.
“The results we’ve had lately are not an indicator of how hard the girls have been working,” Rutherford said. “They’ve been working their tails off. They’ve been so much better moving the ball through the middle. It’s just that last finish or last touch or last pass. If we convert on those this is a whole different game.
“There are going to be games where you feel like you play well enough to win and just don’t get the result. Our girls are mad. They thought they played well enough and I thought they played well enough to come out with a win as well. We just have to put it behind us. We have two games next week against county rivals (Cape May Tech Tuesday, Wildwood Catholic Wednesday) and we have to come out ready to go.”
The victory gave Wildwood (7-7) a bit of revenge from last season, when Lower Cape May won a sectional playoff match over the Lady Warriors in extra time.
“I told the girls after the game last year that I was thankful the bus ride home was so short,” Scarpa said. “We had a lot of emotion and a lot of disappointment on that bus. I promised them we’d schedule a game with Lower Cape May and every single one of our players was looking forward to this moment. I appreciate everything they’ve done to make this victory happen.”