Loyola carries the No. 1 seed in the Division III girls playoffs into Friday’s state championship game against No. 2 Sacred Heart.
But the Lady Flyers (26-3-1) don’t think of themselves as the favorite to win. That’s still Sacred Heart, which has won three straight championships and is in the state final for a ninth straight year.
“Everyone knows that we are the No. 1 seed, but we are the underdog,” Loyola coach Mark Matlock said. “Our players know they can win, though. Sacred Heart has had so much success. We feel like we are fighting for a little bit of respect.”
The Loyola players are hoping to bring home the state championship trophy for the first time in school history. The Lady Flyers played in the 1998 championship game but came up empty.
“I have a lot of confidence in this team,” said sophomore Bailey Freeman, who is Loyola’s leading goal scorer. “This is the best we’ve ever been. We think we are the underdogs, which takes some of the pressure off. We want to win for north Louisiana and for our school.”
Matlock and his players also see the game as a chance to showcase northern Louisiana soccer.
“I really do think soccer fans from south Louisiana look down on soccer up in the northern part of the state,” said junior defender Ryan Barham.
Freeman scored one of the Lady Flyers’ two goals in the team’s semifinal win against Catholic-New Iberia, which took two overtimes.
“That was one of the most intense games I’ve ever played in,” Freeman said of the 2-1 win. “It was a lot of fun and very exciting at the end, when Anna (Brown) got the final goal (in the first overtime). Coach Matlock was telling us all game to play the ball over the top to Anna, because she was faster than their defense. That’s what I did, and it was perfect timing.”
The lone goal Loyola surrendered against Catholic was on a penalty kick. It was also the first the Lady Flyers’ defense has given up this postseason.
“We are really proud of how we are playing back there on defense,” Barham said. “We all work really well together. It’s a real team effort. We’re always talking on the field. We know we have each other’s backs.”
Shutting out Sacred Heart tonight will be difficult.
“It’s going to be a clash of similar styles,” Matlock said. “Both teams play a possession game. In the last few playoff games have been contrasting styles, where we play possession and they play direct, defending a lot. Sacred Heart is going to attack as much as we do, and it’s going to be much more of a chess match.”
Matlock and his players are familiar with Sacred Heart. The teams played each other in the second game of the season. The game ended in a 2-2 tie.
“I think it’s going to be an exciting game (Friday),” Matlock said. “We are playing on turf, and both teams play their home games on turf. Both of us are very fast, so there should be a lot of offensive opportunities.”
For Freeman and her teammates, the first matchup between Sacred Heart and Loyola was encouraging and frustrating.
“We were leading until about the 71st minute of that game,” Freeman said. “That sticks out. I think that has given us an added incentive for us to win. You’ve tied them in the regular season, and now you want to beat them in the playoffs.”
She’s hoping to get that win today at Tad Gormely in New Orleans.
“If we can bring the trophy back, I think it would prove a point that we can play soccer in north Louisiana,” Freeman said. “It would mean so much to our school and team, because we’ve worked so hard to get here.”