The pressure built and built in Saturday’s Class 2A sectional final at Zollner Stadium, and neither undefeated Leo nor host Concordia seemed to be able to break the deadlock.
At least not until the 73rd minute, when Lions sophomore Ella Graves played a ball to an open area directly in front of the goal and just inside the 18-yard box. Senior captain Brooklyn Christle charged to the ball and needed just one touch to boot it past the keeper.
That was enough to the give the Lions (17-0-2) a 1-0 victory and their first sectional championship since 2017.
“Excitement, exuberation, just relief was the one big thing. We knew we were close, just that final piece was missing,” Leo coach Michael Bitler said about the reaction to the goal from the bench. “Brooklyn is a senior captain, her career coming down to the line, and for her to step up was fantastic.”
The Lions lost to Columbia City in the first round of last year’s sectional tournament, so many members of the team had never played in a sectional final.
“The pressure of sectionals and everything, it gets in our heads, and that’s why we weren’t able to score at first. But once we calmed down, after the halftime talk and everything, we were able to bring it together and finish,” Christle said.
The Lions had several promising scoring opportunities foiled by Concordia goalkeeper Alexis Hartman. Holding Leo to one late goal was an impressive turnaround for a Concordia team that lost 7-0 when the two met in the regular season just a month ago.
“A lot of it was our spacing on the ball, slowing down, not letting the moment get to you. If you get stressed out because there’s pressure, you’re going to make some silly decisions,” Bitler said. “So we just told them settle down, play your game, get better spacing so there’s more room to maneuver and just make the simple pass. To give Concordia credit, they played a great game tonight, it could’ve went either way. They’ve made a lot of adjustments since the last game that we played against them, which is a credit to their coaching staff to see those adjustments and to make it a tough game.”
The Lions have yet to lose a game – they were 7-0 against NE8 competition – as they head into Wednesday’s regional semifinals, which will be played at Western, against the winner of the Maconaquah Sectional.
“At the beginning of summertime, I probably wouldn’t have believed it, but this summer we were able to work really hard and we really did deserve that trophy,” Christle said.