The South Burlington girls’ soccer coach Lindsay Austin-Hawley had one message for her team before Saturday’s Division I state championship game: Mental toughness.
The Wolves knew they faced an uphill battle against the undefeated Champlain Valley Union High School, the top seed and holders of a 61-game winning streak, but the first-year coach told her team to not back down.
“We knew that we had the skill, the first game we played them, it was 2-1,” Austin-Hawley said. “It really just came down to heart, grit and mental toughness. It was anybody’s game. Anything’s possible, soccer’s a game of mistakes.”
The team took its coach’s words to heart, fighting through an early CVU goal and capitalizing on a couple of defensive miscues to beat the Redhawks 2-1 and dethrone the three-time defending champs.
It is the first D-I state title for the Wolves since 2010.
“It feels incredible. Absolutely amazing,” said South Burlington’s Grace Johnson. “It’s something I’ve been working towards for three years. It feels incredible.”
South Burlington’s mental toughness was tested early in the game when CVU’s Josie Pecor got just enough space from about 30 yards out and fired a shot into the Wolves’ net for a 1-0 lead just eight minutes into the game.
“When we score, when they score, no matter what we have to act in a positive way,” Austin-Hawley said, “We still had that energy. We had one breakdown and we continued to fight.”
The Wolves kept pushing and found the equalizer with less than 15 minutes remaining in the first half.
After a miscommunication in the CVU box, the ball whizzed past the goalie and onto the foot of Madison King Thurber — the forward made no mistake — slamming it into the net for a tie game.
The Redhawks turned the pressure up in the second half, looking to take the lead and grab their fourth straight title. But the South Burlington back line held, cutting of runs from CVU’s Pecor and Olivia Zubarik.
“I think our biggest success point was our communication in the back today,” Johnson said. “We moved as a unit, we played as a team.”
Pecor, CVU’s top scorer, had an especially large target on her back and South Burlington’s Johnson made sure that the first goal she scored was the last.
“Grace Johnson saved us,” Austin-Hawley said of the defensive effort. “She went into it knowing that that was her job and then she had to do that for the team to be successful.”
The defensive effort paid off, with five minutes remaining in regulation. A long ball played forward fell between the CVU defender and South Burlington’s Rachel Kelley.
After the Kelley won the 50/50 ball she pushed into the CVU box and fired the game-winning goal.
“I don’t even remember that much, but I just saw the goalie came out a little bit and I was just like, I have to shoot it now,” Kelley said. “So I just shot it and I was just, oh my God, it went in.”
CVU pushed for the equalizer in the final minutes but the South Burlington defense and goalie Mercedes Rozzi, who had five saves, stood tall.
“Once we got that goal, I knew it was game over,” Johnson said. “We wanted it more than them at the end of the day. And that’s how we scored goals.”
Austin-Hawley said, “It’s an amazing group of athletes all the way around. This was one of our goals — to get to the championship game. And we got here and we won it. It feels pretty darn good.”