Since capturing its first-ever Washington Catholic Athletic Conference field hockey championship in 2015 — and repeating that performance last year — St. John’s hasn’t usually been an underdog.
But going into Thursday’s league title match against top-ranked Good Counsel, the team was thrust into that spot — and it was a role that Cadets coach Corey Kelly used to motivate her squad.
“I love the underdog mentality. The girls embraced it,” said Kelly. “They embraced this revenge night. When we saw that Good Counsel was ranked third [by The Washington Post] and they were No. 1 in the WCAC, it fueled our fire. Having something to overcome is way less scary than having something to defend.”
The Cadets avenged an earlier season loss to the Falcons by thrashing Good Counsel 2-0, dominating the ball and continually attacking the Falcons’ cage in Thursday’s final at Bishop O’Connell.
“This team is the best team I have ever been a part of,” senior forward Beth Cornelius said. “These girls are my sisters, and it’s amazing to be part of a championship team.”
St. John’s junior midfielder Clara Morrison, a Syracuse commit, was thrust into a leading role this fall and flourished after serving as an under-the-radar player in 2016.
“When I first saw Clara play, I knew that she was a program-changer and a game-changer,” said Kelly. “She is a true star player, and the best thing about her is she doesn’t even know it. She can control the ball out of the backfield, and she is such an elite athlete that she can carry it over to the attack.”
The junior patrolled the back end of the field and often used her superior technical stick skills to bring the ball up the pitch after the Cadets defense — led by sophomore Lillian Kistner and senior Stephanie Heffron, and anchored by senior goalie Maya Lewis — made stops.
Morrison scored the first goal of the game on a penalty corner setup with 5:23 to go into the first half.
In the second half, Kelly refused to let the Cadets sink back into a defensive look to preserve a 1-0 lead. Instead, the Cadets were the aggressors and kept the ball deep in the Falcons’ territory for most of the period.
“Our game plan was to play a pressure attack, pressure midfield and pressure defense, which I think shocks a lot of people,” said Kelly. “A lot of people say that’s so risky, but I said not with this team. We have the skilled players to dominate the possession game.”
That tenacity was rewarded when Morrison stole the ball and ripped a shot at the goal. The ball was initially deflected. But Cornelius recovered it and tapped it to junior forward Ellen Palmiere, who buried the shot — and the Falcons’ WCAC title hopes — with 18:10 to go in the game.
“It was amazing to see how our handwork in practice translated to this game,” said senior defender Erin O’Connell.