The statistics from Rowland Hall's championship girls soccer season are impressive. They ended the season with an 18-0 record. They scored 168 goals, a new state record, and surrendered just six—three of which were in the championship game. Nearly every member of the team, including the goalkeeper, scored at least once during the season. And even the junior varsity team only lost one game this fall.
The season-long dominance by the team doesn't mean Head Coach Bobby Kennedy is ready to use the word "perfection," though. Instead, he said he found this year to be deeply satisfying. He likes to emphasize the team philosophy: "Rowland Hall—where winning is cultured, skills are tested, bonds are formed, and memories are made." He also pointed out, "The school's mission statement ends with personal excellence, and I believe if we ask that of students in the classroom, we ask that of them on the playing field." He reminded his athletes of this all season, and they followed suit.
Seniors summarized their season as exciting, memorable, successful, and record breaking. When co-captain Airam Perez mentioned the word "family," they all nodded in agreement. In fact, partway through the season, Airam and Caeli Kennedy—another of the team's captains—changed the cheer coming out of group huddles from "RoHo!" to "Family!" According to Caeli, the bonds this season grew even stronger than she expected, and much stronger than in her previous three years on the team.
Coach Kennedy attributed the team chemistry to a good mix of veteran players and young talent. "Everyone understood their roles and accepted them," he said. "Some seniors knew they weren't going to be starters, and believed that being part of the team was more important than the minutes they spent on the field. They all bought into the program."
For a team that didn't face much competition during the season—largely due to a state reclassification that shifted weaker or less experienced teams into the 2A Region—they were still tested at times. A few players suffered injuries or illnesses that required them to miss games, but maintaining motivation posed the bigger challenge. It's a winner's problem: you don't have to be as sharp as you could be, in order to beat less-talented opponents. Coach Kennedy never let his players off the hook, though: from the beginning of practice in late July through the championship game, he counseled them that their hard work and daily efforts were an investment in the future.
The players appreciated the rituals in practice and warm-up that helped them stay ready for competition, and the bonding activities such as "question of the day"—"What are you looking forward to this weekend?"; "What are your goals for the next game?"—that kept the mood light. The student-athletes have enormous respect and admiration for their coaches. BK—as the athletes affectionately call their head coach—infrequently offered praise, but that only made it more meaningful when it came. Savannah Price hailed his second-to-none knowledge of the game, and his teaching style: "No one in this community knows more about soccer than BK, so having him as a coach was really valuable."
The highlight for players and coaches was, of course, defeating rival Waterford in the state championship game by a score of 6-3. While they may not have been highly motivated to play every opponent during the regular season, that game was different. "Championship teams have a way of igniting themselves when it's most meaningful," Coach Kennedy said. And while the players experienced nerves heading into the title game, they are proud of how they responded to pressure and achieved their goals.
"No matter who you play, a championship game will be nerve-wracking," Caeli said, "and the fact that we were playing our rivals added extra pressure." Goalkeeper Allison Bagley—the third co-captain on the team—said unlike earlier games, that final match tested her: "A lot of the games, I wasn't that active, but in the Waterford game, it was very different." Meg Janes said her nerves carried through halftime, when their lead of 1-0 was not as large as usual. But the coaches and players all agreed that in the second half, they settled in and started to play their style. "I started to realize, 'We got this now,'" Meg said with a smile.
Lauren Bikhazi cited the disappointing loss to Waterford in last year's championship game as another reason this victory felt so satisfying. Plus, the career seniors had secured their second state title—they bookended their high school soccer careers with championships in 2014 and 2017. The team listened to "We are the Champions" on the bus ride home, and celebrated over a shared meal that evening.
As happy and proud as the Winged Lions were to end their undefeated season with a victory over Waterford, some expressed mixed emotions. Airam voiced sadness in knowing she'd played her last high school game. In a chorus of agreement, the teammates identified what they'd miss most: the coaches and the relationships they've built. "Playing with your really good friends is always an awesome experience," Lauren said. When recalling funny mishaps on the field or inside jokes, the seniors shared laughs and whispers, making it clear that the memories made this year will stay with them for a long time.
Coach Kennedy can't help but look ahead to next year, especially given that this team had nine seniors, the largest number of departing players in his tenure as coach. "Our seniors led the team, and it wasn't just about talent," he said. "Around here, you know what is asked of you, and you stay prepared to answer the call." No matter how the roster shapes up in the future, the demand for personal excellence will remain an integral part of the soccer program—and chances are, that will lead to more success.