Tuesday, March 9, 2021
Lynn Ramsey - Florida Catholic
DELAND | Cardinal Gibbons led 1-0, a penalty kick staring the Chiefs in the face. Who better to have in goal than Alexis Deveaux – a junior who’s been through all three state finals.
Deveaux saved the penalty kick and the Chiefs turned goals by Samantha Fuini and Sydney Polivka into a 2-0 victory over Panama City Beach Arnold in the FHSAA Class 4A girls soccer state championship game, played March 3, 2021. The victory gave Cardinal Gibbons its first state title.
The Chiefs (12-2-1) were in their fourth state final and third consecutive trip to the championship game. They carried last year’s 2-1 loss to Jacksonville Bishop Kenny as motivation. “Coming back, we knew we had a strong enough team to make it here again,” Polivka said. “We had to keep our heads straight, keep our focus and use that loss as motivation for coming back here and finally finishing the job.”
But to win, they had to withstand an Arnold team that had averaged more than four goals per game in the district, regionals and state semifinals. They had to snuff out Olivia Lebdaoui, a Florida State commitment who had 25 goals and seven assists this season.
A veteran midfield and defense snuffed out Lebdaoui and Melissa Sparks, who had 13 goals coming into the final. Cardinal Gibbons coach Margo Flack said her players shut down Lebdaoui and Sparks with an attacking game. Seniors Deborah Bien-Aime and Madison Young powered the Chiefs’ defense. Seniors Heather Astle and fellow senior Madison Rivard turned defensive effort into offensive opportunities.
“We knew that we were going to beat them through the midfield by counterattacking quickly and switching the field as fast as we can,” Astle said. “The moment we saw the splits throughout the middle, we knew we could turn and find the wings.”
Astle set up the Chiefs’ first goal, shooting from the left side of the penalty area. When the ball bounced off backup keeper Allie Dalton, Fuini gathered the rebound and put into the back of the net in the 32nd minute for a 1-0 lead.
Fuini wasn’t the only freshman who played a strong role. Julianna Torres joined Astle and Rivard in helping dominate the midfield. She set up several chances. “We need to win every one,” Torres said. “Everyone was doing a great job. We were solid, we were compact, we were connected, we were talking to each other.”
“HAD AN INSTINCT”
That lead was put to the test when Lebdaoui was fouled in the penalty area in the 53rd minute. Lebdaoui shot for the top left corner. Deveaux read it and made the biggest of her four saves by blocking it away to preserve the 1-0 lead.
Deveaux admitted she was nervous. Because she worked a lot on penalty kicks, she also had confidence. “But I was really, really nervous when I saw it was a (penalty kick),” she said. “The girl was looking at the right corner, so I kinda had an instinct to go there. I just followed my gut and went.”
Flack and Astle called that the turning point of the game. “It was, because that could’ve changed the momentum of the game,” Flack said. “It was huge for her, it was huge for the players in front of her.”
Polivka gave the Chiefs some cushion by heading in a Rivard centering pass into the left side of the goal for a 2-0 lead in the 75th minute. “Madi got the ball from the outside, she beat the defender, cut it and tossed it in, and I was on the back post. No one was around me, so I tapped it in. It was a great ball.”
Bien-Aime, who had several shots on goal, said that the Chiefs kept pushing because they recalled losing a 1-0 lead in last year’s 2-1 loss to Jacksonville Bishop Kenny. Bien-Aime said they learned that they “should keep going and putting all of our grit and hard work and effort to keep going and get more goals. That’s what we did today. Instead of getting just one, we got another.”
TOUGHER, WORLDWIDE FOE
When Cardinal Gibbons lost last year’s final, the Chiefs had a mission to return to the final. That final, however, was among the last FHSAA games before COVID-19 morphed into a worldwide pandemic. At that point, no season was guaranteed.
Flack said the Chiefs worked to follow protocols when the team was released to begin practice. They practiced in pods. Flack challenged her players to commit to the plan, and they bought in.
“They knew they had to buy in if they wanted themselves to have a season,” Flack said. “That’s all they had to know. If they wanted to be able to have districts, regionals and get here, it was going to take a lot.”
They also had to replace seven seniors off the 2020 team. Polivka said losing all the seniors forced the Chiefs to switch from a 4-4-2 alignment to a 5-3-2. She said this year’s team also used wings to create scoring chances. Instead of sending passes over the top of defenses last year, she said the Chiefs played more of a possession game. That possession game tired out Arnold in the final.
This year’s senior class was no slouch, 11 strong. Rivard and Astle were on all three finalist teams, and several more were on last year’s team. Several of the juniors – including Polivka and Deveaux – also played roles on all three finalists.
“That crew has been here three years in a row,” Flack said. “We can look at this game as it was this year that won it, but it was three years in the making. It’s not easy to get here. Some of them have been here three years. They knew what it took, and they were absolutely determined to get back here this year.”
Fuini and Torres were among the freshmen who made an impact. Fuini scored four goals and Torres scored two goals.
Astle said integrating the freshmen into the team was a challenge. She said the captains embraced that challenge. Bien-Aime said the bonding occurred at practice, then carried over into the games. “As a captain, I knew I had to lead my team and start creating that bond,” Astle said. “It was honestly uplifting everyone in practice and really being able to connect with them on and off the field.”
COVID-19 also prevented most of their off-field charity work. However, the team continued to pray together, with COVID being at the forefront of their prayers. Flack said that the Chiefs hosted a game in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. The team collected items for the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital. This year, they donated the items in memory of Emma Sorensen, who died a little over a year ago.
“That brought them all together, knowing they were able to do something in memory of someone and a family,” Flack said. “Some of these girls know that family. I think that was very good for their faith and (having) a kid, someone just like them, lose their life, that was very meaningful to them.”
HOW DO YOU WIN A TITLE?
Flack said that getting to the state final is so difficult that the team attacked it one game at a time. The first goal was to build a district champion, then focus on winning each round.
That involved winning District 14 with a 3-1 victory over rival Plantation American Heritage in the district final. The region semifinal rematch against an American Heritage team that had derailed many a Cardinal Gibbons playoff run proved to be a challenge. The Chiefs won that one 3-2, following up with a 2-0 victory over Gulliver Prep and a shootout victory over Orlando Bishop Moore in the state semifinals.
Astle said the American Heritage victory showed the Chiefs had the desire to win. “We faced Bishop Moore in the state semifinals, and we won in PKs,” Astle said. “I knew luck was on our side and three time’s a charm, and this was the year to bring it home.”
Polivka had said after last year’s final that the team’s goal was to give Flack a title.
“I’ve walked away two other years with silver,” Flack said. “I’m extremely proud of those groups, and I’m just as proud this year, but walking away with gold is a lot more fun.”
Correction: Senior Madison Rivard was misidentified in the picture of the three teammates with their gold medals. She is the one in the center, not Sophia Zinn, as the original caption stated.