So when the teams met again Saturday night in the GISA Class AAA championship game at Mount de Sales’ Cavalier Fields, it was no surprise that it turned into another hard-hitting defensive battle.
Westminster found the net early in the second half to grab the lead and then cemented it late with another goal to win its first championship since 2006 with a 2-0 victory against a team that had won the title four out of the past five years.
“We knew that nothing would come easy against Stratford,” said Westminster head coach Mike Freace, whose team finished with a 17-2 record. “I thought we played a little tentative in the first half, and we wanted to come out and pressure them a little more. We talked about playing with more aggression in the second half, and it paid off for us. “
After a scoreless first half dominated by the defense, Westminster struck in the 44th minute.
Defender Michael Almond delivered a perfect free kick from 45 yards out into the box, and Joe Coleman headed it into the goal.
“It was one of the best goals I have ever seen,” Freace said. “After we got that one, I felt like we had the momentum and our defense answered the call.”
Westminster’s defenders did just that. Almond, along with Caleb Herrin and Noah Lee, did not allow the ball to make it to their goalkeeper, continually getting control of the ball before Stratford could find a good opportunity to score.
The Eagles did find ways to threaten down the stretch. Morgan Sowell, the most prolific scorer in GISA history, had a decent look in the 46th minute but got in a little too deep and hit the outside of the net with a kick. He threatened again in the 62nd minute with a difficult chance that sailed high. Finally, in the 73rd minute, he got a good look at the net and attempted to go left corner but was turned away by goalie Conner Hearon, who made the stop of the game.
With the Eagles in desperation mode, Coleman put the contest away with a remarkable goal, going high to the left corner from about 25 yards out.
“Both teams had opportunities, and they took advantage of theirs and we didn’t,” said Stratford head coach Ian Hayley, whose team ends the season at 14-3. “I thought when they scored we kind of panicked and I’m not sure we ever regained our composure.”
Stratford played most of the game without starter Zane Holliman, who was injured early in the game.
“We gauge our program on winning state championships, so this was a disappointment, for sure,” Hayley said. “I obviously did not do a good job of having us prepared because we knew what they were going to do and we still couldn’t score. This loss falls on my shoulders.”