When St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes took the pitch against Episcopal nearly a year ago, the Saints held everyone back on defense, hoping to settle the game with overtime penalty kicks, where they expected better odds against the two-time state champions.
The strategy worked.
The underdogs knocked off their top-seeded rivals that dwell across Braddock Road in a stunning 3-0 playoff win. The upset victory not only bumped a celebrated Episcopal squad out of championship contention, it ended the Maroon’s three-year undefeated streak.
Less than a full year later Tuesday, a much more aggressive Saints squad again took the field against the Maroon. The Saints were unafraid to go on the offensive against Episcopal, a shadow of its former self, because they had already defeated the Maroon earlier this season.
Though Episcopal effectively bottled up the Saints on their side of the field in the first 10 minutes of play, St. Stephen’s broke out and pushed headlong toward the Maroon’s net. Junior James Bull landed the first blow following a scoreless first half, bursting through Episcopal’s defense with teammate Grant Swaney by his side with 33 minutes left on the clock.
Bull kicked the ball high and over the head of Episcopal’s goalkeeper, Willie MacDade, too far out of the crossbars to make a play on it. It looped gracefully into the back netting. Nearly a full 50 minutes into the game, the Saints had mercilessly pressed their counterparts on defense and the stratagem paid off.
But rather than try and set up a pretty play in front of the net — as Episcopal doggedly attempted time and again — the Saints just aimed the ball goal-side every single time.
It’s a 180-degree rotation of their strategy when Episcopal reigned as Alexandria’s perennial high school soccer powerhouse. Junior Seth Miller, who remembered playing against the Maroon the previous season, recognized the shift.
“I think they’re always a good team,” he said. “Last year we definitely were packing it in [on defense]. This year we’re playing them man-to-man.”
Miller should know. Three minutes after Bull put the Saints ahead, Miller landed the Maroon’s death knell — a chip shot meant to send the ball out in front of the net instead ended up a blooper that dropped over the head of Episcopal’s goalkeeper and into the net’s left corner.
“I was just hustling to the ball and working hard and it all came together,” he said.
It was 2-0 Saints. Half an hour left to play.
Though Episcopal would grow more aggressive and physical, they couldn’t find their way out of the hole dug by the Saints’ offense. For the second time this season, the Saints had overpowered Episcopal, cobbling together a streak of their own: facing down and beating Episcopal for three consecutive matches.
If coach Bo Amato won’t call it a changing of the guard in Alexandria, it’s because he knows all too well how quickly the fortunes of a high school squad can rise and fall.
“The reality is in this [level of the] game, if you have an athletic group and you apply pressure, you can win,” he said. “It’s not rocket science. That’s probably the beauty of the game.”
And Amato wasn’t completely satisfied with the 10-2 Saints. While they netted two goals against MacDade, there were plenty more opportunities to score. If you look over their season, Amato said, there have been few games in which St. Stephen’s has won by more than one or two goals. That leaves a lot of room for potential comebacks.
Had the Saints capitalized on every scoring situation they conjured up in front of MacDade’s net, the final tally would have read more like 4-0 or 5-0, he said.
Saints’ senior goalkeeper and captain Ryon Huddleston acknowledges the thin ice his squad sometimes plays atop. They play with passion, but they’ve got to keep it going, he said.
“Our team has a lot of heart,” he said. “It’s a great feeling [to beat Episcopal twice] this season. We’ve just got to keep it up.”
The Saints face one of the two teams to defeat them this season in the coming days. St. Stephen’s squares off against Landon on Friday before finishing up the regular season at home with games against St. Albans, Bullis and Georgetown Prep.