Minutes into a 1-1 overtime match Thursday, a speeding pass split the Winston Churchill Bulldogs defense before landing on the stick of Walt Whitman Vikings senior defender Catalina Sposato for a breakaway. Both benches erupted into screams as the crowd at the Kennedy High School stadium in Silver Spring roared.
Bulldogs goaltender Blythe Cook hustled to her angle, watching every touch from Sposato’s stick on the ball before a shot flew to the far side, low corner. A kick save stopped the first and Cook blocked the rebound shot.
Fellow Bulldogs plugged the shooting lanes with fervor before ultimately clearing the ball from danger.
“There were two thoughts,” Cook said on making the saves. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God [was the first]. The second part was remain calm, stay set, be on your angle. If I move too much, they’re going to catch me off and I’m maybe going to be on my heels so just stay where you are.”
Both sides were energized by the breakaway, but it was the Bulldogs who captured the momentum. Their passing became stick-to-stick, where in the second half they had become anxious and struggled.
This combined into opportunity in the offensive circle, where an official whistled a foul on a Vikings defender, giving the Bulldogs their second offensive corner of the game. The girls on the field called for the same play they ran to defeat the Bethesda-based Vikings in the Montgomery County Championship 17 days ago.
Junior forward Julieta Matus in-bounded the ball to freshman Junia Whang, who sent the ball to senior Emma Datch near the top of the circle. Datch pulled right to see how the sprinting defender, nicknamed the “fly,” was approaching.
In her glancing view, she caught junior midfielder Jenna Pigott open on post and rapidly sent the ball to her teammate. The next sound a cracking thud of the ball striking the box, followed by a wave of joy as Pigott’s goal sent the Bulldogs to the state championship.
“I knew it would be like the County Championship,” Pigott said, describing the goal. “We had the same plan and as soon as Emma got the ball, I was like ‘I’m open,’ and Emma made an amazing pass.”
“We beat Whitman in overtime, a couple minutes in [the County Championship game] with the exact same play,” Datch said. “But when I received the ball I always pull right and then see how the fly is coming at me and I saw that Jenna who has such a great hit was open so I decided to her. I didn’t even [see the goal]. I just heard the sound and then I knew that we had won it.”
It’s a play they’d worked out all season. It’s a play that’s worked in big moments. According to Whang, “it was just executing at that point.”
The state semifinal matchup marked the fifth time these two teams have played against one another in two seasons, with four going to overtime. But reaching the post-regulation mark was a battle.
Most of the first quarter, the Bulldogs were on the attack. On a slick turf field, hard cuts jostled defenders onto their backsides. This led to the Vikings emphasizing cutting off passing lanes and Churchill countering with a possession style approach with their midfielders.
After the first quarter the Bulldogs offense forced the Vikings to adjust and bring more pressure on those with possession, opening more lanes.
This led to the opening goal as junior defender Mia Inglisa air-mailed a pass to Datch, who stick-handled through two defenders before sending the ball through to sophomore Nora O’Connor, who scored the opening goal and her third ever as a Bulldog.
“It’s just so exciting,” O’Connor said. “I was pulled up last year, so I stood on the sidelines of this game lasts year. It’s just so exciting to be able to play with these people and against this team.”
Scoring that goal had been a culmination of a season’s worth of hard work and camaraderie between her teammates.
“In the beginning of the season I struggled on posts,” O’Connor said. “Everyone helped me learn how to be on post and what it took to push them into a goal after a hard shot coming my way.”
The goal sparked a response from the Vikings, who for the next two quarters would not allow the Bulldogs breathing room to exit their defensive zone. They began to pepper the net with shots, including a tip by Vikings junior defender Maya Raphael that went inches wide of the Bulldog net.
After halftime, the Vikings once again pressed for their goal. It took only 87 seconds to find it as senior defender Clair Godschalk found sophomore midfielder Emma Foscarini near the 40-yard line. Foscarini took the ball wide and found a gear no Bulldog defender could match as she strode wide, right, outpaced four defenders and slashed inside before beating Cook to tie the game.
“This angle, I’m telling you, this angle,” Cook said, still impressed from the play made by the Vikings. “My thought process was go up because [Foscarini] was channeling baseline. I was trying to channel and block her. But I think what happened was I went too far out and wasn’t set and they just got it right past me.”
It was the first goal Cook allowed all playoffs, as the Bulldogs won all three previous playoff games 6-0.
The pressure didn’t cease, as Whitman controlled the passing lanes and their one-on-one defense began to rattle the Bulldog defense and midfielders. Passes became desperate clears batted down and sent right back into the zone by Raphael and others.
“We did I think get a little bit frazzled after they scored,” Pigott said. But I think everyone did a good job of keeping each other calm. We like to take breaths of confidence and exhale out doubt.”
It’s something Bulldogs Head Coach Cay Miller taught her players each season when these moments arrive.
“I say inhale some confidence, exhale some doubt,” Miller said. “And when we get frazzled like that, we know we need to take a breath and sort it out.”
The breathing, the practices and the big plays in high-intensity situations now have the Bulldogs playing in yet another state championship.
“Three years in a row,” Datch said. “This is such a great team and we are giving it our all. I know that we deserve to go to states and I’m just so proud of us.”