Three shots. That’s all it took for the Lions to become state champions.
Westminster Christian Academy girls soccer claimed its first ever state title on Friday. It defeated Trinity Christian in a shootout, outscoring the Crusaders 3-0 in penalty kicks to become the GIAA Class AA State Champion.
What began as a normal-weathered match soon turned into a downpour. Westminster’s Faith Lawhead struck first, leading 1-0 at the half. But the rain aided Trinity, and it was able to slow the Lions down enough to prevent another goal in regular time.
The Crusaders tied it up at one goal a piece in the second half. They had a chance to win it all in the final twenty second, but a missed penalty kick sent the game to overtime. The overtime period remained scoreless, forcing a shootout to decide the championship match.
For Westminster, penalty kicks were nothing to be scared of. The team had spent the last few minutes of nearly every practice working on them just in case.
“I just told them simply this, that they've done the penalties but to make sure that they kept them low and to one corner or another. Don't try to overpower it, just just hit a corner,” said head coach Doug Butts. “We'll take what happens win or lose.”
The late missed kick from Trinity would carry into the shootout, as it missed all of its attempts and the Lions knocked in three to claim the victory.
“It's just like total amazement, because you're going through that stress and the emotional roller coaster of taking penalties,” Butts said. “Our girls were just elated that they actually did it. I mean, it was just unbelievable.”
While younger players like Faith Lawhead and Ellie Poe, the Lions’ goalkeeper, were big-time players throughout the season, it was Westminster’s seniors who led the team to its title.
No matter what their job was on the field or on the sidelines, the four seniors continuously showed up, inspiring their teammates to fight for them.
“A lot of those younger girls challenge themselves to be better,” Butts said. “Those seniors…those were individuals who were continuously raising the bar for everybody else. And as they raised their game, I think that's what made a huge difference in the game and then our ability to win.”
Looking at the tournament seeding, it was unexpected to see the Lions win the trophy. They were the eighth-seed in the playoffs after going 7-6 in the regular season and 6-2 in the region.
After its final loss, though, Westminster went on to win its five final games of the season. Unjust over a week, it outscored its opponents 37-3.
The Lions proved to themselves what they were capable of.
“The girls could have just totally given up and I'm just so proud that they didn't. But to be able to finish like we did, I'm blown away by the way that the girls worked,” Butts said. “It's all the girls, it's not me. It's all the girls. They did all the work and they put the effort into changing their season around.”
The Lions’ dominant second half of the season carried momentum into the state playoffs. They defeated No. 1 Central Fellowship Christian 3-0 in the second round. As they continued to build more confidence with each match, the Lions knew they were not an underdog.
This year’s team accomplished Westminster history, bringing home the first girls soccer state championship because of who they were all year.
“They were a team,” Butts said. “There was no just one individual that was trying to do it. They all worked as a team. And I think that's the key part.”
After falling in the state semifinals in 2021 and losing in the state championship in 2022, Westminster Christian Academy boys soccer came into 2023 with a motto: “not this year.”
This year was different. Westminster Christian Academy got the monkey off their back, defeating Trinity Christian School 4-3 on a penalty shootout to win the GIAA class AA state championship. 80 minutes of regulation and 20 minutes of extra time were not enough to separate the two sides, with the match tied 3-3 after an intense 100 minutes of play.
“This is something we’ve been fighting for for a long time,” said Isaac Heydinger, senior captain for the Lions. “It’s great to see, it’s a dream come true that we get to go out on top with a championship.”
The Lions had a dream start, taking a 2-0 in the first half thanks to goals from Owen Davis and Ethan Bryant, but the Crusaders would not go down without a fight. Trinity’s Henry Williams found the back of the net right before halftime to put the match at 2-1. Goals from Wade Register and Zane Shirley gave Trinity a 3-2 lead in the second half, and had the Crusaders on the verge of a championship before John Donatelli equalized for the Lions in the 66th minute.
“I told them before the game that this was going to be an 80 minute game and that neither team was going to back down,” said Westminster head coach Nate Donatelli. “It ended up being 100 minutes, but we just knew that we had to fight.”
The 11 on 11 match itself was only half of the fight. After neither team scored in the 20 minutes of extra time, a new challenge presented itself: penalty kicks. The ultimate test of nerve and composure.
Westminster found themselves down 2-0 in the shootout after missing their first two shots, but the Lions roared back, scoring their last three shots to level the shootout at 3-3 and force sudden death. After Trinity failed to convert their shot, Reed Carson slotted the winning kick home and was mobbed by his teammates.
While penalty kicks can often be unpredictable, Westminster was prepared for a moment like this. “We practiced penalties every day in practice for the last week and a half,” Donatelli said.
Westminster’s championship is their first in boys soccer since 2019. The girls team also took home the state title last week, making it a clean sweep for the Lions at state soccer. Though Westminster’s season was built on the mantra of “not this year,” this year turned into their year.
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