By Jim McElhatton (Photo/Sawyer McElhatton)
Bishop Ireton’s girl’s lacrosse team won the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship over the weekend with a 17-7 drubbing of defending champion — and regional powerhouse — Good Counsel to give the school its first title in any sport in more than a decade.
The celebration didn’t last long, however, as Ireton prepared for another big 19-5 win on Monday at home against Norfolk Academy in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association quarterfinals.
Following the game, players and head coach Rick Sofield all gave virtually the same answer when asked about the key to the young team’s winning ways.
One by one, they talked about the first week of June last year. That’s when players showed up to school at 6 a.m. for workouts followed by more conditioning after a day of classes. The workouts lasted through the summer, winter and into the season.
“It’s an awesome feeling to finally get what we’ve put into it,” said junior Kelly Matthews, one of the team’s key scoring threats.
Goalie Olivia Cole, who is committed to the University of Florida next year, said the focus on the conference championships began immediately after a loss in the state semifinals last year.
“We came back realizing we had the talent to compete against anyone in the state or anyone in the country,” she said.
Cole, one of only two seniors on the team, joined Ireton as a sophomore after transferring from T.C. Williams. Among the factors that influenced her decision was that Ireton was competing for championships every year.
Until now, however, they’ve only been close.
The Cardinals have made four other appearances in the conference championships, losing three times to Good Counsel — once in double overtime. Last year, Ireton lost to Good Counsel on two occasions by margins of 16-9 and 12-8.
Matthews had six goals and one assist in the conference championship win, one of seven Ireton players to score that day.
Cole described the win over the longtime powerhouse as huge for Ireton’s program. It also was big for the school, marking Ireton’s first conference championship in any sport since 2003.
Sofield said the team’s biggest strength this year was that it didn’t have one.
“We’re solid and deep everywhere,” he said. “We have good defenders, a good goalie. We have good [midfielders] and good attackers. And they don’t care who makes the big play. They just want to win.”
The team, which has been ranked among the top 25 in national polls, finished 7-1 in the conference and 14-4 overall. But Sofield said the goal was never to finish undefeated.
He scheduled the toughest regular season possible in preparation for six games in May: three in the conference playoffs and three more in the VISAA playoffs.
There were doubts — and injuries — along the way. Last month, the team lost by 10 to Brighton and dropped close games during spring break against nationally-ranked Loyola and Milton.
“We knew we’d take some lumps in the regular season but it was all to get prepared for May,” he said. “We played seven state champions and the idea was to prepare them for battles like Good Counsel.”
Freshman Ann Johnson said all the extra conditioning and offseason work paid off in the conference finals.
“Once they start boxing you in, that’s when you’re tired,” she said. “The coach really emphasizes the little things — that one extra step or cradle. Honestly, it’s just determination, and that takes practice.”