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Twice the Thrill for McLean Highlander Soccer Teams

Both the McLean girls’ and boys’ teams capture Liberty titles.

McLean’s Mark Saunders works to keep the ball away from Langley’s Roddy Haight during Friday night’s Liberty District boys’ soccer finals at Madison High School.

McLean’s Mark Saunders works to keep the ball away from Langley’s Roddy Haight during Friday night’s Liberty District boys’ soccer finals at Madison High School. Photo by Craig Sterbutzel.

— The athletic grounds within Madison High School's Norman Bradford Stadium were, for one night at least, a Highlander Haven last Friday, May 18 as both of the McLean High varsity soccer programs - the Highlander girls' and boys' squads - earned Liberty District champion status for 2012 as a result of tournament finals victories.

In a double-header evening of district tournament title games, both of the McLean teams won their respective finals games by 1-0 scores. The Highlander girls, the defending state AAA champions, bested No. 1-seed Stone Bridge in the first game of the soccer twin bill. That was followed by the Highlander boys' triumph over local rival Langley.

"It's awesome," said McLean boys' senior goalie Rob Maffei, whose simple sentiment, while specifically referring to the No. 4 Highlander boys squad's triumph over No. 2 Langley, could also have summed up the euphoria surrounding both the boys' and girls' teams on this night.

Both McLean championship teams were scheduled to begin play in their respective 16-team Northern Region tournaments this week.

THE MCLEAN GIRLS (11-5), seeded No. 3 going into the eight-team district tournament, were on their heels for much of the first half in their championship match versus Stone Bridge, a contest played on a gorgeous spring evening on Madison's turf field. The Bulldogs had controlled much of the play throughout the 40-minute half. But within a moment, the game's flow turned with a rush when Highlander forward Melanie Horton, during a first half Highlander possession, gathered a pass from her left from teammate Rose Sommovigo before, from 15 yards off the right wing area, sending a soft bouncer across the goal and into the far side net with less than a minute remaining until intermission, stunning Stone Bridge and giving McLean a 1-0 lead with about 40 seconds showing.

"Stone Bridge had the momentum and had outplayed us the whole half," said McLean head coach Rob Bouchard. "Melanie did a great job and made it count."

As it turned out, the late first half goal would stand the remainder of the game for McLean, which played a much better second half on way to the title game win.

Stone Bridge, in the game's closing seconds, was making a rush before McLean defender Liz Overby made a clearing kick towards the right side of the field just as the final horn sounded to end the contest.

"This is invigorating," said McLean defender Brianna Nielsen, part of a bend-but-not-break back line which also included Caroline Gray, Audrey Freeman, Evelyn Robinson, and Overby. "I felt as a team we played great, kept it together. This has definitely been a goal for us from the beginning [of the season]. We wanted to win the district and did that."

One of the game's dramatic moments came about six minutes into the second half when McLean starting goalie, freshman Maddie Daizell, was knocked hard to the ground on a Stone Bridge free kick scenario. Annie Bolulic sent a fairly long free kick from the right side of the field towards the right goal area. Daizell came out a few steps in an attempt to catch or knock away the ball as it made its downward descent. As she went for it she was slammed to the turf by a charging Bulldog player. It was not clear who, if anybody, actually touched the ball which, while not moving rapidly, teasingly crossed the goal, left to right. The spherical did not go into the net, instead going wide left.

MEANWHILE, Daizell was on the ground, apparently having hit her head to the turf. She remained down and was attended to for eight minutes or so. Finally, she sat up, to the delight and applause of the fans on hand. A few moments later, with help, she stood up and was helped off the field.

"She's a tough fighter," said Bouchard. "I thought Maddie did everything to get the ball [on the free kick play]. There happened to be a collision. The first thing she asked me was, ‘Did they score?’ when they were taking her out. You can't ask for much more [heart] than that."

Backup goalie Grace Desmarais, a sophomore, replaced Daizell in the net. Over the remainder of the game, the Highlander substitute, with the help of her defender teammates in front of her, would fend off the best she could several Stone Bridge rushes.

"Grace did a great job as a backup goalie who didn't have but three or four minutes to warm up," said Bouchard.

Daizell, following the game, was tested for concussion symptoms on the field. Later, she tried to recollect what had happened on the play in which she was injured.

"I don't really remember," said Daizell, who was told she might have suffered a mild concussion. "I just remember coming out [towards the ball] and …I was on the ground. I never went unconscious."

The net-minder did recall watching the remainder of the game and the play of her back-up.

"I'm very proud of Grace," said Daizell, with a smile. "It was real stressful to watch the game. But I'm just real proud of the team. Our whole goal was to win districts."

McLean reached the district finals with playoff wins over No. 6 Fairfax, 1-0, and No. 2 Langley, 2-1.

THE NIGHTCAP BOYS' championship contest had all the drama one could want with two McLean-area cross-town rivals - Langley and McLean - once again playing one another for the district title. McLean had beaten the Saxons two years ago in the 2010 district finals.

In Friday's title game meeting, both squads played with great heart and determination throughout the 80 minutes of play. The game's lone goal came with just over six minutes remaining in the first half when Highlander senior forward Mark Saunders, after receiving an up-field pass, made a couple of sweet moves with the ball in order to create room from a Langley defender before spinning and sending a well-struck grounder off his left foot. The shot came off the right side of the field from about 25 yards out and zoomed into the right side of the goal for a 1-0 Highlander lead, which would hold up.

"The ball bounced through," said Saunders, of initially gaining possession of the ball. "I took a touch and saw a spot open. [The kick] was a solid connection."

McLean coach Mike Anderson said Saunders was playing with a high left leg sprain in the title game.

"Mark is the heart and soul of this team," said Anderson, whose team has now captured two district tournament crowns in the past three years. "That was a brilliant goal and he was playing in pain."

Langley hardly went down easily. The Saxons, under head coach Bo Amato, made several strong runs for the goal the remainder of the game following Saunders' score. But the Highlander defense did not break and goalie Maffei was outstanding in the net.

"They were pressing us and we were forced to defend," said Anderson, of the potent Saxon attack.

"That's the best game our defense has ever played," said Maffei. "Our outside backs did a great job stopping their outside wingers."

McLean, which lost in the first round of districts last year and failed to qualify for regionals, is back among the region's elite teams once again.

"It feels good to win the district title again after winning it two years ago," said Saunders.

McLean finished 4-3 in district play during the regular season. One of the losses came to Langley, 2-1, at home on May 2. Since that setback, the Highlanders have won five straight games, including three district playoff wins. McLean reached the district finals with playoff wins over No. 5 Stone Bridge, 2-1, and top-seeded Jefferson, 5-1.

"It's coming together," said Anderson, of his team's play. "We have great senior leadership and we're not making mental mistakes."