Liberty High School established itself as a championship-caliber girls lacrosse program not long after the sport came to Carroll County in 1988.
The Lions won 12 county titles in a 13-year stretch, and made six state tournament trips in the 1990s. Four of those ended in championship games, but Liberty came up short each time.
The final 3 minutes of Friday’s Class 1A state final couldn’t go fast enough for this year’s Lions, who were trying to hang on and beat Fallston at Loyola University Maryland’s Ridley Athletic Complex in their first title game appearance in 21 years. And hang on they did — the Cougars trimmed the deficit to one goal, but sophomore Jenna Evans came up with a big draw control in the final minutes to help secure a 10-9 victory and Liberty’s first state championship.
The Lions (9-4) maintained their lead and ran out the clock before celebrating on the field and in front of their joyous fans.
“I just knew we had to win the ball and hold it on our end,” said Evans, who came on for most of the second-half draws after her team struggled to win them in the first 25 minutes. “We couldn’t let them have the ball. It was really important just to get the draw and go down toward the goal and pass it around.”
Fallston (14-2) didn’t go away despite trailing 10-7 with 3:04 remaining. The Cougars netted two extra-player goals ― Liberty drew a yellow card with 2:08 to play, sending a player off the field for 2 minutes — and cut the lead to 10-9 with 1:07 remaining when Caroline Griffith scored her second goal of the contest off a turnover.
Evans won the ensuring draw, however, and Liberty staved off the home team’s comeback attempt.
“We knew it was going to be a close game,” said Lions coach Thomas Brandel. “We were just hoping to have an opportunity to win the game.”
Sophomore attacker Riley Matthiesen led the way with five goals and junior midfielder Val Thompson added three. Liberty and Fallston shared similar offensive game plans throughout by being patient and looking for openings in each other’s defense.
The Lions excelled in isolation opportunities, while the Cougars tried to feed the ball from behind the goal. Junior midfielder Julianna Williams had four goals and an assist to pace Fallston.
Cougars coach Maddie Palko praised Liberty goalie Emma Spaulding (six saves) for making critical second-half stops.
“I think their defense did a great job. They did an excellent job defending what we tried to do,” Palko said. “I think we were a little bit too patient. Maybe we should have pushed more. But, [Spaulding] came up big. Just didn’t go our way today.”
Fallston won the boys 1A state final in the first game of the day by defeating Smithsburg, and Palko said despite not being able to pull off the sweep it was special being there together on the final day of the season. The Cougars came up just short in winning their first girls state crown since 2012.
Matthiesen and Thompson each had goals in the final 1:42 of the first half to bring Liberty to within one of Fallston at 5-4. That spark carried into the second half, along with a better draw-control presence — the Lions scored six of the next eight goals to grab the momentum, and held on from there.
Matthiesen said getting Liberty back to a state final for the first time since 2000 was exciting. Winning the program’s first championship was even sweeter.
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“It means everything,” Matthiesen said. “We worked so hard this season, especially because it was a short season. We had a tough [county] schedule ... and we knew that we could finish the job if we just showed up as a team and played together, played our game. And that’s what we did today.”
Brandel said he recently took his players into Liberty’s gymnasium to look at the program’s banners, which contain plenty of county and regional titles but were devoid of state accolades before Friday. That was plenty of incentive, Thompson said, to finish strong.
“It’s awesome for us, especially going forward,” said Thompson, one of six juniors on a Liberty’s roster that also featured 11 sophomores and five freshmen. “It’s more motivation to be a team that comes back every year, and does this every single year. And we’re just the leaders to start that.”
Goals: L-Riley Matthiesen 5, Val Thompson 3, Jenna Evans, Ally Pond; F-Julianna Williams 4, Caroline Griffith 2, Abby Kaminkow, Skyler Stevens, Ally Schromsky
Assists: L-Emily Van Reenan; F-Stevens, Delaney Nicolaus, Williams, Mia Salvatierra
Saves: L-6 (Emma Spaulding); F-3 (Makayla Hinkle)
Halftime: Fallston, 5-4