At the start of the season, junior Caitlin Bierwirth wasn’t a goalkeeper. The three-sport athlete was a field player who wanted to help the St. John’s girls soccer team finally get past Paul VI after St. John’s fell to the Panthers in the 2016 Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship game.
Early in the season, with Bierwirth defending the goal while messing around at practice, her natural acumen for the position caught the attention of Cadets first-year coach Allison Diaz.
“She’s a basketball player and she has natural hands,” Diaz said. “We liked what we saw. One day we said, ‘Let’s try it,’ and we stuck with her by the third or fifth game.”
On Sunday night at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, Md., that risky decision paid off with championship hardware. The game went through regulation and overtime tied at 3-3, leaving the outcome to penalty kicks. Bierwirth calmly denied two Panthers shots in a thrilling shootout, while St. John’s converted all four of its tries to deliver the Cadets their first WCAC crown since 2011.
“I was pretty nervous going out there,” Bierwirth said. “We practiced for that for weeks. I just did what I knew — took a deep breath and guessed.”
For the Cadets, avenging their loss to Paul VI from 2016 — and several deep playoff runs since 2011 that ended in the semifinals or championship defeat — was the end of an odyssey.
“This was something that was beyond special,” said junior Maliah Morris. “This is something that we have been waiting for since last year. We have been waiting for this moment, and it’s amazing to finally get this moment back.”
While the game ultimately came down to a shootout, regulation provided plenty of fireworks as the Cadets raced out to a 2-0 lead with goals from sophomore Makenna Morris and junior Meaghan O’Donovan.
That set up a wacky second half in which the Panthers responded with a pair of goals to tie the game 2-2. St. John’s then turned to senior midfielder Grace Walsh to break the deadlock with a header for a 3-2 advantage. But before St. John’s could celebrate, the Panthers scored again to force overtime and ultimately penalty kicks.
The drama only added to the Cadets’ elation after Bierwirth’s game-winning deflection, which sent the team into a mix of cheerful celebration and happy tears.
“This is the most amazing team that I have ever had,” said Walsh. “Senior year ended in a bang. I wouldn’t want to play with anybody else. We came together, and we are a special team.”