Annie Rolf looking to pierce the fringes /// Photo: Andrea Rolf
There are teams that set standards for their leagues, states, regions and nation, and they drive the competition to work harder. Consequently, when the opposition triumphs, those victories become more than their effect on a team’s record. In our High School Game of the Year, St. Joseph Academy enjoyed an important, redemptive win and rode that momentum to a single-school national championship.
The Jaguars entered the first single-school championship as a contender, but safe bets were placed on Divine Savior Holy Angels (DSHA), the longtime reigning Midwest champion and region’s routinely highest finisher at nationals. The pair won their respective quarterfinals, with St. Joseph edging Kahuku by two points and DSHA defeating Warsaw 24-5. The duo lined up for the same-day semifinal, a rematch of the Midwest final four.
“We went into the game knowing that they are our biggest competition,” St. Joseph head coach Jaime Cleary recalled. “DSHA is a powerhouse in the Midwest and have always represented well. We have gone up against them in the past but have come up a try short, accepting runner-up as a win for ourselves and a reason to train harder for the future.”
Forwards coach Mary Jo Reddy reminded the squad how it’s tough to be a team three times in a row, “so this is our game,” the alumna had said. “This is your day to be the better team.”
St. Joe took the first lead through flyhalf Rachael Kean’s score, but then the Dashers responded with three defense-breaking tries for the 17-7 halftime lead. During the break, the squad addressed the adjustments needed in the outside defense, while backs coach Sara Leary pumped up the team.
“You have made sacrifices all season for this game,” Cleary recalled her assistant coach’s words of inspiration. “Make sure you leave nothing on the field. No regrets!”
The Ohio side consolidated the ball in its powerful pack, and as always, leaned on leading performances from Kean and prop Annie Rolf to pull within a try. With 6:26 on the clock, No. 8 Maeve Mullen charged through the defense for a try, tying the game at 17-all. It was a difficult angle for kicker Regina Baldado, but she was calm under pressure and sent the crowd to its feet when she nailed the extra points, 19-17.
“Slowing the game and retaining position was our best bet, but DSHA was not giving up,” Cleary explained. “I remember my heart pounding so hard the last few minutes. Thinking that we are going to beat DSHA and we are going to the championship game seemed unreal. The girls on the field played their best game together and played with determination.”
The Jaguars held on for the two-point win, first-ever victory over DSHA and first-ever trip to a national final. St. Joseph returned the following day to beat Colorado’s Summit High School 29-14 in the final.
“If winning a national championship is what everyone’s ultimate dream is, then for [us] to beat DSHA on the path to getting there is like Christmas morning opening the last present for the gift you wanted all year,” Clearly enthused. “I am so proud of the team for supporting each other on and off the field. The season was made to win that game, and the national title was the icing on the cake to complete our best season ever.”