In a 3A state semifinal match-up between a pair of programs — Mt. Hebron and Thomas Johnson — that were each making their first trip to the state final four in the last eight years, settling nerves and establishing momentum was even more critical than usual on Saturday afternoon at Linganore High School.
And courtesy of a goal in the first 15 minutes, it was Thomas Johnson that got the exact kind of start it was looking for.
Tracking down a ball on the left side, Mei Homman looped a shot off of Mt. Hebron goalie Ainsley Sowers’ hands into the far side of the net for a 1-0 lead that set the tone for an eventual 3-1 victory that advances the Patriots into their first state championship contest since 2001.
“Getting that first goal, especially early, it puts you in the driver’s seat and all of a sudden they are on their heels a little bit,” Thomas Johnson coach Adam Weinstein said. “That momentum, on a stage like this, it just means that much more. And there was a lot of game left and [Mt. Hebron] certainly didn’t give up, but I think more than anything that early score showed our team that this was just another game and we just had to do what we do and execute.”
Thomas Johnson (9-4-2) ended up adding its second goal early in the second half courtesy of Megan Wilson and then, following a score by Mt. Hebron’s Maddie Hammond in the latter stages that temporarily cut the lead to one, the Patriots put the game away on a free kick goal by Sara Hohn.
The team will play Northern-Calvert, a winner Saturday over Towson, in the 3A title game next week at Loyola University’s Ridley Athletic Complex.
For Mt. Hebron (8-8-1), the loss brought an end to the team’s magical run through the postseason that included four road victories in the region playoffs after starting as the five seed. The regional title the team secured with a 5-1 victory over James M. Bennett on Nov. 7 is the first for the program since 2000.
Against Thomas Johnson, the Vikings fell short but their coach Tim Deppen said he saw the same fight and hustle in the defeat that his girls had shown throughout the postseason run.
“I think we proved that we deserved to be here and showed the determination that the girls have displayed throughout the playoffs,” Deppen said. “Today was obviously disappointing to fall short, but the girls should be very proud with how far we’ve come as a team. We may have been underdogs every game, but we certainly didn’t play like it.”
The first few minutes of the contest were fairly even, with both teams adjusting to the cold and windy conditions. But when Thomas Johnson got the game’s first real scoring opportunity, it didn’t waste it.
Homman’s goal with 25:25 left in the opening half turned out to be the only score for either team before the break.
Mt. Hebron did have chances to find the net, including a shot by Allison Brown that ricocheted off the crossbar, but ultimately never hit pay dirt.
Then, just less than three minutes out of intermission, Homman perfectly placed a corner kick onto the foot of Wilson to increase the Patriots’ advantage to 2-0.
Despite being down two, though, the Vikings never hung their heads.
“They don’t care if we are down a goal, or down two goals, they know that they have it in them to come back and score. They are super confident and super resilient, and it comes from watching us evolve this season,” Deppen said.
That resiliency finally paid off with 12:45 left in the second half, as Mt. Hebron capitalized on a corner kick of its own. The ball was initially cleared outside the box, but Julia Noppenberger corralled the loose ball and found Hammond in front of the net for a flick over Thomas Johnson goalie Alayna Burgamy (4 saves).
The goal was the 12th of the postseason for the Vikings.
But as quickly as the momentum seemed to be shifting, Thomas Johnson effectively grabbed it back for good.
On a free kick from the middle of the field, Hohn delivered a laser into the upper right corner just outside the reach of a diving Sowers (5 saves).
“I was confident about that free kick because that is kind of my spot on the field,” Hohn said. “I was kind of like let’s just relax, we’ve got this. We were winning, but I knew just how much sweeter it would be if we could get a goal there to go back up two.”
Down by two goals again, Mt. Hebron was unable to muster another comeback.
“That last one for them hurt, because at 2-1 I really felt like we were right there,” Deppen said. “I could kind of feel the exhale on the field after that third goal … that was a gut punch that we just didn’t have enough time left to recover from.”
As the final seconds ticked down, the Patriots stormed the field and celebrated the right to play another day.
“You know the last time we won a state title was 2001, which was the year I was born, so that’s really motivating,” Hohn said. “Each win isn’t just for us, it’s for the entire school. And we want to be put down in history at TJ.”
Looking ahead to the match-up against Northern, Weinstein wants his team to keep the same formula it has used throughout the playoffs. Having now outscored its opposition 13-2 in four postseason games, the Patriots are undoubtedly playing their best soccer of the season.
“I think anytime you make it this far you’ve got something pretty special going on, and I truly think this group isn’t done,” Weinstein said. “I really have to give this group of players all the credit, because no matter what the circumstances have been all season — the weather, a big crowd or whatever it may be — they have always stepped up to the plate. Now they’ve just got to do it one more time next week.”
Reach Brent Kennedy at email@example.com or follow him on twitter @BKBSunSports