By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING – Pontiac Notre Dame Prep senior midfielder Rosella LoChirco called her team’s victory Saturday in the MHSAA Division 2 girls soccer championship game “a Cinderella story.”
It’s doubtful that Cinderella would put up any sort of dispute.
Notre Dame Prep won its first MHSAA girls soccer championship with a 2-1 victory in an amazing eight-shot shootout with Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern at DeMartin Stadium on the campus of Michigan State University.
A team doesn’t normally win an MHSAA Finals championship by having a player score her first goal of the season to tie the game with less than a minute to go in regulation. If that is not enough of a “Cinderella story,” the best is yet to come.
Notre Dame Prep went to a sweeper to use as the goalkeeper in the shootout, a player who had not played in goal at any level in two years.
Junior Eileen Haig made two saves and two other Forest Hills Northern shots were off-target. Then, the winning goal in the eighth round of the shootout came from LoChirco, who buried the ball into the left side of the net to give her team a deciding 5-4 edge and set off a wild celebration.
After 100 minutes of game action and seven rounds of a shootout, a banged-up LoChirco ran to her spot in front of the net to take the shot.
“After we went back and forth so much, I was just ready to get it in the net and end the game,” LoChirco said. “I was a little apprehensive because I felt some muscle pulls during the game, so I was kind of nervous, but I saw a big, open spot in the net, and once it went in, it was craziness, jumping around and being happy.”
Forest Hills Northern had a chance to win it in the seventh shootout round, but senior Morgan O’Neill kept her team alive by beating the Forest Hills Northern goalkeeper to the left side.
As Payton Williams, Olivia Mears, Stephanie Maniaci, O’Neill and LoChirco were scoring for the Fighting Irish, Haig was doing her best in net against the Huskies. She made a save on the first shot of the shootout, and she said that helped her feel comfortable.
“It was amazing,” Haig said. “I could tell which way she was going, and I got some tips before I went in.”
Notre Dame Prep (21-1-3) used Haley Williams in goal during regulation and the two 10-minute overtime sessions. However, the plan all along was to pull her in the event of a shootout, a situation that coach Jim Stachura did not want.
“We didn’t want to get to that point,” he said. “We were pressing with three and four and only two in the back to press in the second overtime. We did everything we needed to do except put the ball in the back of the net more consistently. Their keeper had a whole lot to do with that.”
The original plan was to play freshman Morgan Verheyen in the net, but she was in Florida for an AAU volleyball tournament. That left Stachura and his staff guessing what to do in the shootout. He did not want to use Williams in goal because of a lack of experience in such situations.
“Eileen plays a high level in club soccer, and I think that settles the nerves,” Stachura said. “This is Haley’s first year as a starter, and sometimes you have to go with an instinct, and our gut instinct was to put Eileen in for that.”
Goalkeeper coach Ryan Tadajewski told Haig about the potential move at the end of regulation.
“He put the idea in my head, and it went out of my head in overtime,” Haig said. “I used to play in goal for my club team but stopped a couple of years ago. I knew I had to do it, and once I got in there it was complete calm.”
“I knew I could save some of them even though I hadn’t been in net in a while. I’m good at jumping and guessing.”
The shootout would not have happened without the late heroics of Payton Williams, a junior defender who scored her first goal of the season on a free kick with 41 seconds left in regulation and the Fighting Irish trailing 1-0. The free kick was set up by a hand ball by the Huskies.
As Williams prepared to take her shot from the far right spot near the top of the box, the left side of the goal was left open. Williams spotted it and drilled it into the open net.
“Payton stepped in and, with ice in her veins, she buried it,” Stachura said. “It was a great strike. As long as she had it on frame, I thought she’d have a good shot at it, and she absolutely buried it. It was a phenomenal strike, and it was nice to see it bulge in the back of the net.”
For Williams, the moment was something she never could have imagined.
“It was a great feeling, especially considering that it was my first goal and it came in the state championship game,” she said. “I saw that side was open, so I just kind of went for it. It was amazing to know that as time was winding down that we came back and did it.”
Notre Dame Prep controlled the play for the most part, but junior Natalie Belsito gave Forest Hills Northern a 1-0 lead in the 46th minute when she was able to control a bouncing ball in front of the net and direct it into the goal.
The Fighting Irish had a 16-8 edge in shots and a 12-2 advantage on corner kicks, but if not for that late free kick by Payton Williams, the Huskies might have won their first MHSAA championship. And they would have had their own “Cinderella story” as they only had one senior, were unranked and did not win their conference.
“I’m proud of them,” said Forest Hills Northern coach Daniel Siminski, whose team finished 16-4-4. “It’s a really big field, and it was really hot, and Notre Dame carried most of the play. We did a good job of keeping it tight. It was 41 seconds, so what can you say? It’s soccer.
“You can’t blame anyone. Not everybody gets to be here, and you flip a coin in a shootout. If I had a chance to do it again, I’d do it again. It’s difficult to get here, and we were unranked all season, so for the girls to get here is amazing. Nobody would have gambled on us.”
Junior Amanda Young, the Forest Hills Northern goalkeeper, kept her team in the game with seven saves, and a few of them were sensational.
“Two saves really stand out,” Stachura said. “On one of them, Celia Gaynor got in six yards out, and Young made a kick save with her foot. Another one was one that squirted out from eight yards out, and she got her hand on it and kept it out.
“If either of those goals go in, it’s a different game. Give credit to them. Penalty kicks is never a great way to lose, but when you’re on the winning side, it’s a lot of fun.”
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PHOTOS: (Top) Notre Dame Prep players celebrate the game-tying goal by Payton Williams (19). (Middle) Eileen Haig, normally a sweeper for the Fighting Irish, moved into net for the shootout.