A Notre Dame girls soccer team that started out the season with modest expectations saw its state playoff run come to a screeching halt from a tough and talented Port Jefferson team in Sunday’s Class C championship game at SUNY Cortland’s Red Field.
The outmatched Crusaders fell, 3-1, to a bigger, stronger and faster Royals team that last year competed in the state title game in Class B.
“The kids battled their hearts out the whole game. There was no quit in them,” Notre Dame head coach Steve Weber said. “They (Port Jefferson) were just super tough. There is no question that they are the best Class C team in the state. …That is just an outstanding club.”
Notre Dame, which came up short in sectional play last year, was making its first trip to the title game since winning its only championship in 2003.
“We are really proud of ourselves for getting here, but we are absolutely gutted that we lost,” sophomore forward Camille VanderMeer said. “They were a really good team, and I think we were outplayed today by a tough competitor.
“Everyone played well today, but I just think that the better team won.”
It was the first girls soccer state championship for the team from Long Island, which lost in its first championship appearance last year while competing in the higher class. Port Jefferson’s only two losses in a 17-game season were to Class A teams.
“I could feel, from the moment that we stepped on the field, their drive to just bring it home this year,” Port Jefferson head coach Allyson Wolff said. “You could just see that confidence from our connection with the passing and moving the ball down the field. They were dominant today.”
Notre Dame had given up only four goals all season, including 2-0 shutout victories in its state quarterfinal and semifinal games, but it had never faced a team as skilled as this one was. They controlled possession of the ball for most of the game, limiting the Crusaders to just two shots.
“We played our hearts out today,” Notre Dame junior goalkeeper Mackenzie Maloney said. “Port Jefferson was an amazing club, and it was an honor to be here today.”
Freshman forward Laurel Vargas scored Notre Dame’s only goal, converting a penalty kick with eight seconds remaining in the first half to halve the deficit to 2-1.
Vargas’s golden opportunity came after she had been knocked down in the goalie box by two Port Jefferson defenders. Midway into the second half, Vargas left the game after receiving a head injury from falling down while driving toward the Royals box.
The Royals showed a feverous attack from the start, producing numerous scoring opportunities within the first 10 minutes. It forced Notre Dame to make adjustments, but each one largely had little effect on the Royals pursuit to the Crusader net.
“With the constant pressure, we looked to drop people back and change our system up a little bit to try to protect that but as soon as you do that, now all of a sudden you are taking away from your offensive ability,” Weber said.
Among the changes was moving Vargas from the top to midfield, since most of the play was happening on the other side of the field.
“That started to really make a difference there but once she was injured that changed,” Weber said. “It seemed every time we tried to make a change, something would occur to offset that.
“A lot of that came from them, they were just relentless with their ability to get the ball forward quickly,”
Port Jefferson managed to rifle off 20 shots against a usually stout Crusader defense.
It seemed like it was only a matter of time when the Royals would find the back of the net. That happened 22 minutes into the game, as junior Clare O’Connor converted from the box in close range off of a precision cross pass from the right side by junior Jillian Colucci.
With 8:32 remaining in the half, junior Brittany Fazin dribbled between three Notre Dame defenders for an open shot that was just out of reach of Maloney’s outstretched hands in the upper right corner.
The Royals scored its final goal, midway into the second half, off of one of their five corner kicks. O’Connor’s kick sailed over the Crusader defensive line and found Colucci all alone at the far post, where she headed it in.
“Every goal that went in today was a quality shot by their team,” Weber said. “A couple of those goals were just outstanding shots, and there was nothing anybody could do about them.”
Maloney, largely untested throughout an 18-2 season, kept the Crusaders in the game with several big stops from the 10 saves she made.
“People don’t know how good a job that Mackenzie can do just for the fact that a lot of games we’re not giving up a whole lot of opportunities,” Weber said. “Through the later games of sectionals and throughout the state playoff runs, any big play that she has had to make she has done it for us.”
Maloney was rewarded for her efforts, receiving a medal for outstanding goalkeeper after the game.
“These past couple of games have been the ones that I’ve seen the most action,” Maloney said. “It’s definitely been exciting, because I feel like I got to be a part of it all.”
Maloney was part of a tight-knit group of dedicated Notre Dame players that made this year’s team gel and achieve the success they did.
“I can never be more proud of a team than I am of this group,” Weber said. “We had high expectations, but I don’t think those expectations were this high.
“It just comes down to how hard these kids were willing to work.”
Colucci received the postgame award for outstanding player for her team, and Notre Dame junior defender Sara Watts also received an outstanding player award.
This year’s Notre Dame team featured nine seniors, including top forward Emma Booth, who played through an ankle injury for the second straight day. Maloney and Watts will be part of the returning team next year.
“It really was all about the journey that it took to get here and how hard we worked to get to where we are now,” Maloney said. “If you told us at the beginning of the season that we would be state runnerup’s, none of us would really believe it.
“I’m just very proud of our team and what we’ve accomplished this season, especially being one of only two Notre Dame teams that have done this.”
On Twitter: @SGRLevanduski