GIDDY CUBS: Madison’s Sydney Studebaker (above, 5) celebrates her goal with teammates Catherine Fisher (7), Jennie Wilson (far left) and Gabby Nay during the second half of the Cubs’ 3-0 sectional win over Jennings County Thursday in Batesville. Madison’s Alex Thurnall fires a shot toward the goal (below) despite the leaning presence of the Panthers’ Jaimie Baldwin. (Staff photos by David Campbell)
GIDDY CUBS: Madison’s Sydney Studebaker (above, 5) celebrates her goal with teammates Catherine Fisher (7), Jennie Wilson (far left) and Gabby Nay during the second half of the Cubs’ 3-0 sectional win over Jennings County Thursday in Batesville. Madison’s Alex Thurnall fires a shot toward the goal (below) despite the leaning presence of the Panthers’ Jaimie Baldwin. (Staff photos by David Campbell)
BATESVILLE - Delanie Jones knew that Jennings County goalkeeper Maddy Hovious was staring right back into the sun. So when the Madison senior got a chance to fire a shot out of the blinding sunlight, she jumped at it.

Jones' direct kick from nearly 30 yards out just over three minutes into the second half cleared Hovious' outstretched hands and broke a scoreless tie. That one goal also shifted the momentum and led to a 3-0 Madison win in the semifinals of the Class 2A Girls Soccer Sectional 26 at Batesville on Thursday.

"I always get excited when I get a free kick from about 18 to 20 yards out. It's probably my favorite," Jones said. "We thought (Jennings) picked the wrong side because we're a second half team anyway. When we saw that sun, we were trying to get chest-high everytime."

The victory sends Madison to a sectional championship game for the first time since 2002, the year the Lady Cubs won their first and only crown. Madison will take on East Central on Saturday.

The sun played nearly as big a part in the game as the contestants. The orientation of the field at Batesville Primary School placed the sun directly off the end line and as a result, one team was forced to play into the glare.

Jennings County won the coin flip and chose to place Madison goalie Tess Lemen in the glare in the first half. For the most part the ploy worked as the Panthers out-shot Madison 14-7 in the first half while the Cubs were forced to operate with the sun in their eyes.

But Jennings was unable to score a goal during that 40-minute onslaught and when the field was flipped, the Cubs took control.

"Jennings took their side of the field and it seemed like a good idea but the sun was just too high," Madison coach Darren Harmon said. "Tess said that there were only about four or five balls that gave her trouble. In the second half, the sun was a lot lower, right on the horizon, and I think that helped us considerably."

The sun's lower angle certainly helped Madison, but the Cubs made sure to change tactics as well. Madison spent much of the first half possessing the ball too much and, as a result, the Cubs offense bogged down.

Harmon and assistant coach Lindsey Williams made ball movement the point of emphasis at halftime.

"Coach Lindsey gave a solid talking to us at halftime," Jones said with a smile. "We knew we had a lot of jitters pregame. It was a really slow game at first and we knew we had to come out with a lot more energy because we knew we were better than that team ... Once we got a few goals on them we could see them deflate and we just ran with it."

Madison (7-8) certainly was more aggressive in the second half and it paid off almost instantly. Just over three minutes into the second half Jennings was whistled for a foul and it was Jones who took the free kick from nearly 30 yards out.

The senior has hit several shots under similar circumstances this year and she didn't miss this time. Jones' shot was a perfect arc into the net and, thanks to the low sun, Hovious had little chance to stop it.

"Delanie hits those shots all the time and in practice she's just deadly," Harmon said. "I had told Delanie earlier about the sun and to keep the ball up and when the call was made, I yelled out to her and just pointed to my eyes. The shot was perfect although I don't think (Hovious) even had a chance. She lost it in the sun."

The goal wrested all of the momentum from Jennings County and Madison took over. Another foul - this one in the box - gave the Cubs their second goal which Alex Thurnall easily converted the penalty kick to put Madison ahead 2-0 with 27 minutes to play.

Just two minutes later Madison struck again, this time when Sydney Studebaker found the net. The senior defensiveman was playing up during a scramble and fired a shot from near point-blank range that Hovious deflected. The ball came right back to Studebaker and this time she didn't miss, sending the ball into the net.

The Cubs did not score again but they didn't need to. Jennings, which had 14 shots in the first half, did not get their first shot of the second half until 10 minutes were left in the game and the outcome was all but decided.

Madison outshot Jennings County 21-18 for the game including 14-4 in the second half. The Panthers had more shots on goal than Madison, 12-11, but four of those shots came in one 30-second flurry early in the first half when Jennings had repeated attempts at the net to no avail.

Lemen stopped eight shots in goal for Madison while Hovious had nine saves. Madison led 10-6 on corner kicks but was also whistled for 11 fouls to Jennings' five.

Next up for Madison will be a date with East Central, a 3-0 winner over South Dearborn in Thursday's other semifinal. The Trojans whacked Madison 11-0 en route to their 14th sectional crown a year ago and have eliminated the Cubs two years in a row.

"This is almost like a David and Goliath story but as I told the girls, anything can happen in the sectional," Harmon said. "They've knocked us out of the sectional the last two years, they've got a better record than us and they're a good team. But when you look at the stats, we've got about the same amount of goals by top players. Anything can happen, we just need to go out and play our game."

Regardless of what happens, the team is thrilled to be playing for a sectional title. For seniors like Jones, it is the first time the Lady Cubs have been in this position since they were in elementary school.

"It's been a long time and getting there is a goal in itself," Jones said. "We've all looked forward to it and we're all pretty excited and on a high right now. We're going to go out and play our best no matter who the opponent is. We're just going to play our game."