A multitude of questions loomed over eventual state champion River Hill entering this season, and coach Brian Song admits he did not have all the answers. The Hawks were coming off their second straight state title but lost two first-team All-Metro selections in the midfield and would likely rely on multiple freshmen for production. While Song liked his depth, few of his players had defined roles.
All of the sudden, a program typically labeled as “the team to beat,” according to senior Danielle Poindexter, was viewed as vulnerable and certainty beatable. The Hawks were not even viewed as the county favorites to start the year. That distinction went to Wilde Lake, which returned its entire starting lineup from a 12-3-1 team.
Uncertainty continued to follow River Hill throughout the season — evident by Song using a different starting lineup in almost every game — but there was one constant: winning. Following a season-opening loss to Leonardtown, which further tempered expectations, the Hawks secured victory after victory, all while learning how to play with one another and finding their identity.
First they bulldozed through the league slate without a loss. Then came another playoff win over Wilde Lake, another region title and yet another state championship appearance, their 13th in program history. A 13th state championship was now one win away.
By this point, River Hill had developed an unbeatable formula, and the Hawks used the same blueprint to defeat Walkersville, 1-0, in the 2A state championship on Friday at Loyola University’s Ridley Athletic Complex. The goal was a product of one of the Hawks’ renowned set pieces and came off the foot of Brigette Wang, her 16th score of the year. No other Hawks player scored more than five.
And for a team that has allowed five goals all season, Wang’s strike was all River Hill needed to come away with its fourth three-peat in program history.
“Last year we were very sure of what we had to do, who was going to do what, what our role was on the team and how the game would kind of play out before it happened,” Wang said. “This year, we walked into every game just knowing that we were going to play our hardest, and the outcome would be what we deserved. This year has been a lot more of a fight, but that’s been one of our biggest strengths.”
Friday’s game was no different against a hungry Walkersville team making its first-ever state championship appearance following a 2A West region title and a penalty shootout win over Fallston in the state semifinals. The Lions (13-5-2) played the Hawks even over the opening 15 minutes. They even created a few quality scoring chances off free kicks.
Poindexter said this team “took a little bit longer to get into the groove” than past state champions, and the same phrase could be used to describe the Hawks’ effort on Friday. The Hawks dominated possession after a slow start and earned four corners in the first 25 minutes, yet they attempted two shots on goal. On their fifth corner, in the waning moments of the first period, Jules Grasso sent a header over the crossbar. It marked the Hawks’ best scoring opportunity of the game.
“We were balanced with them, I thought. We were up and down the field with them, and we didn’t really give up a lot,” Walkersville coach Paul Bryan said. “The sin is giving up the corners, because if you give up too many, they’re going to bite you.”
River Hill (17-1) earned its sixth corner at the 32-minute mark of the second half, and it took an aggressive play from goalkeeper Jazzmin Salters to keep Sophia Elguera’s curling cross from bending into the net. But three minutes later, on yet another set piece, Salters was left hopeless against the Hawks’ dynamite goal scorer.
Poindexter took the direct kick from the left wing and sent a rocket towards goal. A Lions’ player got her head on the ball first but could not clear it away, which resulted in Wang having an open look on the right side of the net. She then waited for the ball to come down to a comfortable shooting position, picked her head up, framed the attempt and beat the goalkeeper to the far post.
The volley ignited a River Hill offense that continued to push forward during the final half hour of the match. It was almost as if the Hawks were searching for the equalizer instead of playing with the lead. They did not appear worried about Walkersville’s attack. They yearned to double their advantage.
However, in the final minute, a well-executed counter attack nearly erased the Hawks’ flawless defensive campaign.
The Lions quickly advanced up the field and into the box, which freshman goalkeeper Caroline Duffy described as a “jumble” of players hell-bent on either scoring or knocking the ball away. Lions’ leading scorer Kasi Ogwulu eventually gained possession and sent a shot on target, which bounced off a Hawks defender and scraped Duffy’s hand.
Song seems to praise Duffy whenever given the opportunity, first calling her the county’s best goalkeeper and then calling her one of the 10 best goalkeepers in the state. There’s been games River Hill would not have won if not for her quickness, decisiveness and athleticism. With her in goal, the Hawks secured 12 shutouts in 17 games entering Friday.
Her deflection in the final moments was yet another display of her goalkeeping prowess, but it was ultimately luck that kept the Hawks from having to play overtime. Just as the ball looked as though it would sneak inside the left post, it clanked off the bar and out for a corner kick. Moments later, the Hawks were state champions.
“I always say to these girls, ‘I’ll take any luck we can get,’ and a lot of games, we had luck on our side,” said Song, who improved to 9-0 in state championship games at River Hill. “We’ve been very blessed and fortunate, but it’s also the perseverance that these girls put in and the effort.”
River Hill (17-1) – 1, Walkersville (13-5-2) — 0
Goals: RH — Brigette Wang.
Saves: RH — Caroline Duffy 8; W — Jazzmin Salters 10.