When the Rowland Hall Winged Lions entered the 2A state tournament as the No. 9-seeded team, the squad had an even .500 record for the season at 6-6.
But as the team departed Rio Tinto Stadium after Wednesday afternoon’s 2A state championship match, it went home with win No. 11.
By a final score of 2-0, the Winged Lions capped off their underdog run, which saw them beat the eighth-, first- and fourth-seeded squads, with a state championship victory over third-seeded St. Joseph.
Senior captain Zach Baughman said he and his teammates knew they had the run in them, they just needed to make it happen on the pitch.
“We knew we were much better (than our record showed),” Baughman said. “The regular season started off rough, losing to teams that we knew we could beat, so coming in as the 9 seed, we knew we had to prove ourselves.”
Though they had knocked off top-seeded Maeser Prep just four days prior to the title game, the ultimate chance for the Winged Lions to prove themselves came against their title game opponent, St. Joseph, which beat them twice in the regular season and came into the match having won its semifinal matchup by a whopping 8-0 scoreline.
Despite those circumstances, Rowland Hall head coach Joe Murray said his team came into the matchup feeling relatively confident.
“We lost twice to St. Joseph by one goal each time, so we kind of knew we were close (to them),” Murray said.
“We knew all along that we had played the top teams as well, or better than them in the regular season, we just couldn’t put the ball in the net.”
Goal scoring had been an issue for Rowland Hall in the regular season, but with 20 goals in its four playoff games, the Winged Lions managed to solve that issue pretty effectively.
But facing a side that was averaging 6.5 goals per game coming into the title game, Rowland Hall would either have to score multiple goals or defend to perfection in order to knock off St. Joseph.
It wound up doing both of those things.
In the 32nd minute, a hand ball in the box by the Jayhawks paved the way for Luke Muhlestein to bury a penalty shot in the back of the net for the game’s opening goal.
Getting the goal scoring out of the way, the penalty kick allowed the Winged Lions to rely upon their defense, a position they were comfortable with given they had conceded only 10 goals all season.
“That first goal definitely gave us some fire,” Baughman said. “Whenever we get a goal, we start giving our all (defensively) in order to secure that win, so getting that first goal meant a lot.”
The penalty goal aside, chances were hard to come by in the match for both teams, with most of the game being played in the central third of the field.
Both defenses did their jobs, but with exactly two minutes remaining in the game, Baughman managed to get the ball at his feet in transition.
The senior drove up the right side of the field and took a difficult-angled shot from the right side of the attacking third, just outside the penalty area.
The high arcing shot soared over the Jayhawks’ keeper and into the goal to make it 2-0 and essentially put the game on ice for the Winged Lions.
The last goal of his career, Baughman said was “without a doubt” his favorite goal of his career for obvious reasons, but he deflected all the credit for the victory toward the defensive effort of the team.
Led by a backline of Jack Vitek, Brandt Barker and Calvin DeBellis, along with wingbacks Lorenzo Parker Pillow and Muhlestein, the Winged Lions picked up their ninth clean sheet of their season.
Sam Andrew, the squad’s keeper, was also solid throughout the afternoon, making a crucial diving save just seconds after Baughman scored the team’s second goal.
“The defense has been amazing all season,” Baughman said. “Our defense, honestly, I think I could argue it’s the best in the state.
“We have a lot of heart back there and they’re really the reason that we’ve made it here today.”
It didn’t come easy for them at times this season, but all the struggles became worth it in the end for the Winged Lions, whom Murray said banded together and became like family through the struggles.
“It’s not just about the quality of the players, it’s also about brotherhood,” Murray said.
“From the start of the season, they’ve been a band of brothers, and I think that bond that they have is really what drove them through the end.”