PARK HILLS – Maria Fernandes is among the top NJCAA women’s soccer players in the nation, and the returning Mineral Area team members were keenly aware.
When the St. Charles star came within inches of denying the Cardinals a thrilling victory on Saturday, sophomore center back Anna Gremaud alertly reacted in desperation.
Gremaud blocked a turning shot by Fernandes just before time expired, and Mineral Area upset the ninth-ranked and previously unbeaten Cougars 2-1 for its first win of the season.
Rylee Mirth and Emilia Wunderlich scored on set pieces, and Thea Draganova stopped all four shots she faced during the first half as the Cardinals claimed their Region 16 opener.
Mineral Area (1-4-1, 1-0-0) nearly sealed the outcome when Iseha Rollins drew a foul and yellow card from Camdyn Suttory before rattling the crossbar on the ensuing free kick with eight minutes left.
The Cardinals then had to scramble defensively against relentless pressure. Sandra Swartz fired a cross too high, and Guilia Starman shanked her drive while cutting in from the right side.
St. Charles (6-1-0, 0-1-0) brought its most intense flurry at the conclusion. Fernandes jumped in front of keeper Merle Tieseler to control a deflected pass, and fired at the doorstep as Gremaud extended her foot to protect an otherwise open net.
The teams finished tied in total shots at 10 each after Mineral Area produced five corner kicks during a superb 30-minute stretch of the first half.
The Cardinals brought players forward after Colleen Flanagan stole possession at midfield, and Rosalie Coughlin worked past a defender along the left side in the 26th minute.
Mirth stepped into the resulting corner kick, and tallied her first goal of the season when the ball eluded the leaping reach of keeper Charlize Williams and caromed off a nearby defender.
Williams made her most impressive of four saves about seven minutes later when the Cardinals worked the ball back to midfield and side to side on five pinpoint passes.
After stopping an earlier 20-yard drive by Rollins, Williams tipped a strong shot by Flanagan away once Suttory blocked an adjacent attempt in the box from Savannah Hasemeier.
St. Charles averted another dangerous corner from Mirth to Rollins that redirected wide, and the margin remained 1-0 until halftime.
The MAC blueprint for success hinged on marking Fernandes, who compiled 12 goals during a six-match winning streak before being limited to three shots on Saturday.
Fernandes pushed a rebound past the left post after Dariyn Hoff sent a diagonal ball toward Tess Roberts in the 14th minute. Draganova cleanly handled a long shot later in the half.
Wunderlich made it 2-0 on a penalty kick in the 48th minute following a successful counter attack. Coughlin won a 1-on-1 battle to steal near midfield, and Mirth guided a quick through ball toward Flanagan, whose run was halted on a foul by Cougars captain Campbell Slemmer in the box.
The uplifting two-goal advantage for Mineral Area lasted exactly 34 seconds. A blocked entry ball struck a defender and landed at the feet of a wide-open Hoff for an easy finish.
Hoff coaxed a subsequent yellow card with an excellent steal that forced Tash Goodwin to haul her down in order to prevent an explosive counter.
After Gremaud disrupted a cross intended for Fernandes with about 11 minutes remaining, Goodwin drew a yellow from a frustrated Roberts.
The Cardinals waited a few weeks later than the men’s team to begin Region 16 play. East Central postponed a scheduled match for lack of players, and State Fair canceled its season entirely.
The triumph over a St. Charles squad that beat MAC for last year’s region championship could mark a turnaround for the Cardinals, whose only two goals through five games belonged to Hasemeier.
Paige Richards chipped in two shots for the Cougars, who surrendered multiple goals for the first time this season.