It was a joke, but it also kind of wasn’t a joke.
According to Western Albemarle girls soccer defender Nicole Bilchick, before the game, Western coach Jake Desch joked about his team’s consistent ability to respond after getting figuratively punched in the mouth by an opposing team’s score.
“He’s like ‘It’s not that we want them to score early, but we almost do’,” said Western’s Nicole Bilchick. “Because it puts us in a situation where we get amped up and we play better than we ever have before.”
The Warriors’ knack for bouncing back after getting scored on — notably they did it against Albemarle in the teams’ first meeting, then against Hidden Valley in the state semifinals — got put to the ultimate test Wednesday when Independence jumped out to an instant two-goal lead in the first three minutes of the game. Western responded with three-straight goals in an eight-minute stretch of the late first half and a sterling defensive effort after the early onslaught made it count as the Warriors won their fourth-straight Class 3 state championship with a 3-2 victory over the Tigers.
“It’s really, really exciting, especially getting our season taken away last year,” said Western senior Ellie Cox. “I think it was really important for us to come together as a team this year and get this win for the state title.”
Spotting the Tigers a 2-0 lead wasn’t in the plan, Desch’s joke aside, but Western made the best of the situation.
“In a way it worked to our advantage — I wouldn’t do that again,” Bilchick said with a laugh. “Coming back after we’ve been down, our team has been really great at that this year.”
Make no mistake though, the Warriors were initially reeling from Independence jumping out that way with goals from Kaitlyn Nimmer and then Reagan Wise.
Somehow Western settled down over the next 20 minutes or so and started to figure out some things that worked offensively. It was clear the Warriors could find some space on the wings, as they repeatedly turned and created chances down the flank during that stretch.
The breakthrough came when Phebe Ryan found Kelly Rogers on a dual run down the right side. Rogers knocked a shot off of the keeper and Ryan collected and quickly finished to cut the Tigers’ lead to 2-1. Just six minutes later, Gabi Andres struck on the equalizer, building down the right side again, this time on a swing back to the right after freshman Reese Mattern drew a pack of defenders wary of her speed on the left. Mattern expertly shifted the ball across the formation to Andres who took off.
“Reese, as always, kind of cut in and took a few people on and played a great throughball,” Andres said. “I kind of just ran on it and I saw the keeper out so I knew I had to put it in the corner so I just slotted it in with my right foot.”
Two minutes later, to wrap up the eight-minute explosion, Kayleigh Long drew a foul at the top of the box to give Western a free kick. Desch started calling for senior Cordelia O’Connell who’d been playing back, to shift up and take the shot.
It was an absolute no-doubter, struck like a thunderbolt to the right side upper 90.
“We’ve been really good at coming out of situations where we’re down or losing — it was kind of early in the game and we were caught off guard but we had a lot of time and we had to pick it up,” O’Connell said. “And that’s exactly what we did.”
From there it was all about Western’s defense stepping up, with O’Connell, Bilchick, Cat Domecq and holding midfielder Kayla Howell locking up and redirecting Independence’s quick-strike offense. Western keeper Liora Shin bounced back from the early goals to hold the Tigers scoreless the rest of the first half including a huge save with 10 minutes left before the break. Then freshman keeper Elana Romesburg came on to try and finish the game.
“You get really hyped up because you never know when your playing time is going to come and you just always hope for the best,” Romesburg said. “When I get called up, I just try my best and do what I can.”
The Tigers consistently tried to test Romesburg over the top and from way outside but the ninth-grader was more than up to the task, collecting free kicks and corners alike smoothly and soundly, not allowing rebounds that could turn into cheap goals.
“I love Elana — every time she’s back there, we hype her up and she’s really, really great,” Bilchick said. “She’s not the tallest keeper out there but she compensates with how skilled she is — we’re really comfortable with her back there and she comes out with those big saves that make a difference in a game like that.”
The Western Albemarle seniors — O’Connell, Cox, Shin, Rogers, Brooke Whittier, Emma Johnston and Karina Long — leave only knowing state championships, winning three in their four years interrupted only by the 2020 pandemic cancellation of last spring’s season.
The final one needed a full-tilt rally to get there, but in the end Western took home its fourth-straight state championship and fifth all-time as a program.