BLUE SPRINGS, Mo. - The Jefferson City girls soccer team hasn't exactly been known for its offense this season, riding a stingy defense all the way to the MSHSAA Class 3 Final Four.
And when the Lady Jays' leading scorer was injured in Friday's loss in the semifinals, things looked a little dicey for Saturday's third-place game.
It turns out, there was nothing to worry about.
The Lady Jays got a pair of pretty goals to jump out to a 2-0 lead and made them stand up while capturing a 2-1 win against Francis Howell North at Blue Springs High School.
Both Jefferson City goals centered around a great shot by midfielder Kaley Ruff. She looped in a shot from 30 yards out off a direct kick in the first half, then delivered a great corner kick to Tayler LePage for a header in the second half.
"Kaley Ruff has been big on those all year - she's just served some tremendous balls into the box," Jefferson City coach Eddie Horn said.
It helped ease some fears for the Lady Jays' coach.
"Coming into the game, there were several things you worry about," Horn said. "No. 1, being flat. No. 2, the motivation. Then No. 3, a little more specific to the team, (leading scorer Sarah) Luebbert can't really go and she's (50-plus points on the season) and all of the play goes through her. So I'm thinking, how are we going to score today?"
Luebbert, visibly hampered by an ankle injury, played sparingly in the contest. Resting her became a lot easier thanks to the first goal, which came with 24:04 left before halftime. From the left side of the field on a restart, Ruff lofted a shot that kept forcing the Francis Howell North keeper back, and back, and back, until finally both she and the ball landed in the net.
"It was funny because coach Horn was right behind me on the sideline and he was like, "Do you think you can shape it into the back post?' And I was like, "I'm feeling it, coach. I've got this,'" Ruff said. "Now, it went to the near post, but I was happy with it."
For a Jefferson City team that posted 19 shutouts this season, getting an early goal often turns out to be deadly for the opposing squad.
"It was a great thing for us because our team focuses on getting the early goal and then trying to keep the lead," Ruff said. "Our defense has been good all year. We can make it stand up if we get one or two."
It ended up being two, the second coming with 36:21 left in the game. That's when Ruff lifted a perfect corner that LePage drilled into the net.
"I just kind of got lucky," LePage said. "Kaley played me a great ball and I was just able to get my head on it."
Ruff said she wasn't surprised the Lady Jays were able to score off a corner kick.
"We've been pretty awesome on corners all year," she said. "That was the best chance we got on a corner in the Final Four, so it was good that Tayler could capitalize on it."
Getting a second goal helped the team breathe easier. Maybe a little too easy.
"At that point, you feel like, "We maybe have this,'" Horn said. "We made it a little more interesting at the end than we needed to, but we still got the win."
Francis Howell North got its only goal of the weekend with 22:03 remaining and put on a furious charge down the stretch, but was never able to get the equalizer.
Jefferson City ends the season at 23-5-1, while Francis Howell North ends at 17-8-1.
"That third-place trophy looks a lot better than fourth," Horn said.
He was far from the only one thinking that on the Jefferson City sideline.
"Third is great," LePage said. "This is our first time ever being here, so it was a great accomplishment just even being in the Final Four."
Thanks to losing just three seniors - Courtney Kolb, Megan Martens and Dallas Wilson - the core remains that could net Jefferson City a return trip next spring.
"You've got to credit our three seniors for really laying the foundation to get us here and their leadership," Horn said. "I told the team when we were working out (Saturday) morning, very few teams get here the first time and win it. But if you get here, then you know what to expect the next time and it's a little bit easier to handle.
"You give credit to our three seniors and hopefully it was a wonderful experience for all the underclassmen we have and hopefully they don't let it go to their heads and think that it's just going to happen automatically next year. We have to guard against the "Disease of Me' and continue to train hard and continue to try to get better and hopefully we can be back here next year, too."