The only thing lacking from McLean High's highlight reel field hockey postseason has been a championship banner. The Highlanders, following a 10-7 regular season and as a No. 4-seed in the Liberty District tournament, reached the tourney finals before losing to Fairfax. Then at the 16-team Northern Region tournament, the Highlanders won three straight games before losing in the title game last Wednesday, Nov. 3 to Lake Braddock, 2-0.
But McLean, under head coach Summer Vanni, had accomplished its primary goal of the season by reaching the region championship game and, therefore, automatically qualifying for this week's eight-team Virginia State playoffs. The Highlanders were scheduled to play Eastern Region champion Lakeland (20-0) of Suffolk in a quarterfinals round contest earlier this week on Tuesday, Nov. 9 in Virginia Beach. A victory there would advance McLean to a semifinals game this Friday, Nov. 12 versus the Stafford/Cosby (Midlothian) winner. The finals are slated for Saturday at 12:30. Both the semifinals and finals will take place in Virginia Beach.
Prior to the state playoffs, coach Vanni said the Highlanders had as good a chance as anyone of winning the state crown. McLean had lost in both the district and region finals, but the team still had the state tournament ahead and anything was possible. Vanni recalled last spring's McLean High softball team which fell in both district and region title games before going on to capture the state crown.
"We've had such a fantastic postseason and I think the girls are excited and ready to go," said Vanni, of states. "We didn't win the district or region, so we're going to win the state - like the softball team, that's how we'll do it."
FEW EXPECTED the No. 4-seeded Highlanders from the Liberty District to zoom all the way to the region championship game. But McLean did just that, stunning undefeated and Concorde District champion Westfield in a first round game before eliminating Woodson in overtime. That put the Highlanders in the do-or-die semifinals against defending region champion South County, the No. 2 seed from the Patriot District. The winner would advance to the finals and earn an automatic state playoff spot, while the loser would see its season end. McLean, in the contest played on Nov. 3 at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, defeated the Stallions in a double OT affair, 4-3.
"It was exciting but it was exhausting," said Vanni, of the extended win over South County. "I will tell you we were exhausted. We got [back at McLean] right before midnight."
One day later, in rainy and wet conditions, McLean, in the finals, faced a Lake Braddock team and its legendary coach, Diane Miller, who a couple weeks ago announced this would be her final season at the helm of the Bruins. Lake Braddock gave its popular coach a 2-0 victory and the region crown - quite a parting gift. The Bruins were scheduled to host Western Branch (Chesapeake) in a state quarterfinals game earlier this week.
The region finals game appearance was the first for McLean since 2001 when that Highlander team fell to Annandale in the championship. Further back, in 1994, McLean won the region.
"I wish we would have played better," said Vanni, of the finals loss to the Bruins. "But I was excited for Diane and happy she could go out on top as a respected and veteran coach. We didn't play a great game and we reverted back to some old habits because of fatigue."
But the coach said her team, even after the title game loss, was revved up for states.
"They're excited to be playing tomorrow," she said, earlier this week."They know they've proven themselves and created a reputation in the region, and that was my goal. I want these players to be held in high regard."
VANNI said her team's make-up this season did not include any true superstar standouts. The Highlanders had numerous good players who trusted one another and played together. It was that team-first mentality that helped them win region playoff games over such talented squads as Westfield and South County.
"We were able to handle their best players," said Vanni, of the postseason victories over the Bulldogs and Stallions. "Our girls blend real well together and support each other really well. I knew [before the season] we didn't have a real superstar, but we had a lot of good players with good experience. I think that kept us in these games."
That outstanding team camaraderie helped McLean to reach the success it has. The team has been extraordinary in close games, winning several overtime affairs.
"We've had more overtime games than I've ever seen in my life and we've won," said the coach. "It wasn't one girl doing everything. All the girls had to step up."
Four McLean players were recently named First Team All-Liberty District. Those players are: Mary D'Alesandro (Senior Captain, Defense); Kristina Bettner (Senior Captain, Forward); Jordan Walker (Senior Captain, Forward); and Kristen Ahean (Junior, Midfield). Two Highlanders made All-District Second Team - Amelia Dutrow (Junior, Defense) and Leandi Venter (Junior, Midfield).
Three McLean players were named to the All-Region Tournament First Team. They were Malalai Nawabi (Junior, GK), Becca Latimer (Junior, Forward) and Allison Wilhelm (Junior, Defense). Making Second Team All-Tournament were Mary D'Alesandro and Kristen Ahearn.