The No. 1 McDonogh girls soccer team was supremely talented and highly motivated this season after last year's disappointing finish.
It proved to be an unstoppable combination, capped off by a win in Saturday's Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference title game against defending league champion Archbishop Spalding.
The Eagles completed their season-long mission with a 2-1 victory over the No. 4 Cavaliers at Anne Arundel Community College, getting first half goals from seniors Anna Bialczak and Casey Martinez and then fending off a second-half charge from their biggest rival.
The win gave the Eagles their third league championship in four years. McDonogh surrendered a late lead to the Cavaliers in last year's title game before losing on penalty kicks.
McDonogh finished the season with a 14-2-2 mark, outscoring league opponents by a 68-3 margin in going 12-1 through the regular season and playoffs.
Martinez, who buried a penalty kick with two minutes left in the first half to give the Eagles a 2-0 lead, also scored the game-winning goal her freshman year when the Eagles beat Spalding in overtime.
After winning a second title as a sophomore, she was out of last year's game with an injury. Asked if this championship made up for that, she didn't hesitate.
"Yeah it really does," Martinez said. "Everyone was so motivated for this year and I'm so proud of everybody on this team for fighting so hard and coming back and knowing this was a team we were going to take to the championship and win it all."
As always when McDonogh and Spalding get together in big games — the teams have met in the past four championships — nothing came easy.
Playing in steady rain during the first half, Bialczak found time and space moving from right to left before unleashing a heavy shot from 20 yards to give the Eagles a 1-0 lead. Just before half, the Cavaliers were called for a hand ball in the penalty area, which Martinez promptly turned into a 2-0 lead.
But the Cavaliers, who in the regular season fell to McDonogh, 5-0,made a strong push in the second half. Sending more players forward to produce more chances, Spalding earned a penalty kick with 4:10 to play and senior Sarah Martin's score cut the Eagles lead to 2-1.
But unlike last year, when the Eagles relinquished a late lead, they showed poise in closing out the final minutes.
"It's a little bit frantic at that point of the game, so we had to try to calm it down even though it was kind of all over the place," Bialczak said. "It's a little hard."
Spalding got a sparkling 11-save performance from All-Metro senior goalkeeper Cassidy Babin. A fine collective effort came in front of her, but it wasn't enough to spoil the Eagles' plans.
"To be honest, McDonogh brings talent, We have blue-collar kids, and all I can ask from them is what they brought in the second half," Spalding coach Ashly Kennedy said. "We had a game plan, we prepared for it, we executed. ... I told them if you believe in anything, then anything is possible, and so the last five minutes we really, really tried to press."
The first-year coach wasn't surprised to see a closer outcome compared to McDonogh's lopsided win in the regular season.
"I think emotions are high, the value of this game was much more important," she said. "A lot of the seniors I have — I have nine — they wanted to bring it this game. If anything, any champion, like these kids, come to a championship title [game], they're going to bring it, no doubt."
IAAM A Conference Championship
(at Anne Arundel Community College)
1 McDonogh 2, 4 Archbishop Spalding 1
Goals: M –Bialczak, Martinez; S -- Martin
Saves: AS – Babin 11; M – Clark 3
Half: M, 2-0