AIKEN - Claire Joyce hadn't played like a sophomore all season. And she wasn't about to start in the playoffs.
With Aiken's season on the line in the second round of the Class AAAA state playoffs, the Region 3-AAAA player of the year faced Lexington goalkeeper Amber Markley on a penalty kick in sudden death Wednesday.
Without hesitation, Joyce drilled a bullet to the low left corner of the net, giving the Lady Hornets a 4-3 victory over the Lady Wildcats.
"She's definitely our clutch player," Aiken coach Ron Johnson said. "She can put it away. That's why she's region player of the year."
Aiken advances to the third round of the playoffs for the second straight season, where it will take on the winner of the Spartanburg-Northwestern matchup. The third-round game will be played Friday.
"That was definitely a high-pressure shot," said Joyce, who scored all four Aiken goals. "I'm just glad I kept my cool. I was just telling myself to stay calm. We didn't plan on this being our last game."
Aiken's Ashley Timmerman was fouled in the sudden-death period to set up the winning shot.
Timmerman also drew a foul late in the overtime period with the Lady Hornets trailing 3-2.
Joyce stepped up on that penalty kick and nailed a shot to the high right corner to keep Aiken's chances alive after Lexington turned a 2-0 first-half deficit into a 3-2 lead.
"Our girls never gave up," Lexington coach Chris Fryland said. "We kept after 'em. But Aiken played their tails off. We knew it was going to be a battle."
The Lady Hornets, who split with Lexington during the regular season, got off to the quick 2-0 lead after Tawny Chritton assisted Joyce on the first goal of the game. The sophomore forward gathered a pass late in the first half and dribbled past two Lexington defenders before firing a shot to the left corner to score the second goal.
"We played well in the first half, but they jumped on us pretty hard in the second period," Johnson said.
Lady Hornets goalkeeper Sarah Younts didn't get much action in the first period as Aiken controlled the tempo, keeping the ball away from the Lexington scorers.
But the momentum changed after the intermission as Katie Meldau launched an inbounds shot for Lexington midway through the second period, bouncing the ball off the hands of Younts and into the net to get the Lady Wildcats on the board.
"That was just a misplay, and of course, it changed the momentum," Johnson said. "They were back in it and it fired them up a little."
Lexington's Ginny Wolf got into the flow after that, sending the game into overtime with a turnaround shot that barely escaped the outstretched arms of Younts, who finished with 10 saves.
"We've got experienced players," Johnson said. "It was an ugly game, but we move on to survive another week."
Reach, Patrick Green at (803) 648-1395.