A pair of unusual goals and a stellar defensive performance powered top-seeded Cathedral Catholic to its first-ever CIF Open Division girls’ soccer crown Friday night, a 3-1 victory over defending champion and second-seeded Carlsbad at Mission Bay High School.
Western League champion Cathedral Catholic is now 22-2-3 overall, has won 14 straight and owns a remarkable 19 section banners all-time. Avocado West League winner Carlsbad dropped to 19-5-1. Both teams will advance as San Diego representatives to next week’s CIF State Championship tournament.
One of the pivotal moments of Friday’s game occurred early and came on a play Cathedral Head Coach Dawn Lee mined from her days as a collegiate player.
Less than 10 minutes into the still scoreless contest, Dons’ senior Megan Janikowski lined up to take a free kick at midfield, just inside the right sideline. With Carlsbad packed in front of the goal, Janikowski laid down a near perfect grounder right down the line that an unmarked Sophia Aragon collected about 15 yards from the goal line. When Aragon turned inside she was still running free and spotted senior teammate Audrey Covington , five yards in front of the goal at the near post. Aragon put the ball at Covington’s feet and she casually flicked it past Carlsbad keeper Olivia Becker, 1-0.
“Usually, we like to go direct and test a goalkeeper early in the game but when I saw how far they had dropped, I think they were all in the box, we called the play,” said Lee, who was a standout locally at UC San Diego. “My college coach, Brian McManus, used that play and obviously it was huge.
“Our girls always seem to relax when we’re up and getting an early lead, it helps you to just take a deep breath.” Both Aragon and Covington were shocked at how things unfolded.
“I didn’t expect the play to be called, it was a last-minute decision by Dawn,” said Aragon. “I sprinted down the sideline, it was a perfect kick from Megan and when I turned toward the goal there was still nobody near me.
“I was actually confused and thought the play was called back or stopped for some reason. I saw Audrey was pretty much unmarked, got her the ball and she finished it.” For her part, Covington was just as uncertain as Aragon.
“I thought it was weird that nobody was around me. I hadn’t heard a whistle but wondered if the referee had blown it dead. I just figured I would put it away and see what happens.”
After the first goal, there were still 50 minutes to navigate, a difficult chore in any championship scenario but particularly against a squad with Carlsbad’s offensive capabilities. Fronted by junior burner Lexi Wright, who come into the evening with 46 goals (Cathedral had 51 as a team), the Lancers had plenty of quick strike capability.
The Dons got a warning shot fired over their bow with 15 minutes remaining in the half when speedy senior Taylor Wells, Wright’s 14-goal-scoring running mate knocked an angled left-footed drive that came straight down off the crossbar and for an instant trickled dangerously in front of an open Cathedral goal. In one of the game’s unsung acts, sophomore defender Mia Adams swept in, cleared the ball to safety and the scoreboard still read, 1-0, at the break.
Part of the Dons’ game plan involved steady junior defender Delaney Diltz man-marking Wright. Lee is not typically one to concoct specialty tactics but then Wright is not your typical opponent. Diltz wanted the task and, in fact, did a solid job on the whole.
You can never keep a threat like Wright completely under wraps, though. In the fifth minute of the second half, despite her being well-covered, teammate Hannah Ghassemian threaded the needle with a cross to Wright in close to the goal and she put it home. Suddenly, it looked like anyone’s game again—but just as swiftly, Cathedral Catholic re-took control.
Three minutes later, after a massive scrum in front of the Carlsbad goal that saw the ball ping-ponging around in a cluster of players, another sophomore, Taylor Reed, showing incredible composure, pulled the ball back a few yards to create some space, spun and sent a low shot through a maze of bodies that found the far side of the net.
The Dons had their reprieve and with 22:22 to go in regulation doubled the margin when Covington found herself in the thick of another bizarre goal. Diltz, who makes every throw-in on the offensive end a scoring opportunity, flung the ball into the middle of the box where Covington headed it up in the air. In goal, Becker apparently thought it was going over the frame, went up to make sure it was clear but it came straight down behind her and rebounded into the upper net. Both teams appeared stunned.
“I jumped, met it with my head and thought it was going over at first,” recalled Covington, who came into the day with three goals on the season and now had two in the biggest game of her career. “To see it going into the net was surprising—it was definitely one of the craziest plays I’ve ever been involved with.” Lee, although still wary, felt that the third goal had an impact on both sides.
“Having that third goal was pretty significant,” said Lee. “You could see it dropped their shoulders a little bit and I know I felt a lot better. You’re never too comfortable carrying a one goal lead with somebody like Lexi on the field.”
Cathedral survived the final 20 minutes and when it was over had its first-ever Open trophy and Lee, who had 10 CIF titles on her resume, had officially ended a personal “drought,” getting her 11th six years after No. 10. She pointed to defense as the critical factor in the outcome.
“I think our defense was the key tonight and, for that matter, this whole season,” said Lee. “And by that, I mean team defense, not just our back four—it came up big a lot.
“The whole thing feels amazing. Every year, every team is special in its own way but the dynamic of this team was incredible and I’m very proud of them—I wanted it bad, for them.”
Her players had similar thoughts when asked about the ‘whys?’ of this year’s accomplishments.
“Heart, that was the most important thing tonight,” said Aragon, who has a team-leading 13 goals on the season. “Putting it all out on the field, having no regrets and playing with a full intensity to want this game more than anything else.
“It’s really unbelievable. I’m so grateful and blessed. I’m so proud of our team and the strong mentality we’ve had all season to push through all the challenges.”
In her final year at Cathedral, the result had extra meaning for Covington. “It’s the best feeling ever,” she smiled. “I’ve been on this team for three years and I’ve loved every game, every practice with all these girls, this program with Dawn and to be able to get this far and win the championship my senior year, it’s the best—the best feeling I could ever have.”
Dons who will next host Huntington Beach Edison Tuesday in the first round of the CIF State Championship tournament.