With her team set to play crosstown rival Stone Bridge for the fourth time this season, Briar Woods Coach Ann Vierkorn elected to implement a kink subtle enough to maintain the formula that propelled the Falcons to Sunday’s Virginia 5A title game but zany enough to place their familiar opponent on its heels.
The more Vierkorn thought about it, the more she kept coming back to Rayven Conner, a sophomore midfielder who exudes both graceful precision on her kicks and aggressive pursuit in her play. By placing Conner in the unfamiliar position of reserve, the Falcons reached an unprecedented platform, riding Conner’s goal and assist to a 2-1 comeback win against the Bulldogs at Robinson and their first girls’ soccer state championship.
“It was a little different,” Conner said of her first game coming off the bench, “but Coach told me to use my time on the bench to watch how our team and Stone Bridge were playing so I would know how to attack when I got in.”
The initial view wasn’t so pleasant for Conner, as the Bulldogs relentlessly attacked on offense and outshot the Falcons, 7-0, in the first 18 minutes. Emily Fox connected on one of those attempts in the ninth minute, sending a high shot from the right side into the net to put Stone Bridge ahead, 1-0.
Soon after, Vierkorn inserted Conner, who exhorted her teammates to attack both sides of the field. After drawing a foul on the right side, Conner booted a free kick that bounced toward Emma Quirk, who knocked in the equalizer in the 19th minute. Less than five minutes later, Conner received a pass from the left side, shielded her defender with her back and then whipped around for a blasting, 15-yard shot that would serve as the decisive goal.
“As soon as she started to set up in the middle for that shot, I knew good things would happen,” Vierkorn said.
Still, the Bulldogs (17-5-1) didn’t let up and attacked the Falcons’ side of the field often behind the efforts of their speedy, skilled midfielders. But each of their six second-half shots and open opportunities were thwarted by Briar Woods’s formidable back line and goalkeeper Tori Riopelle (nine saves).
When the final whistle sounded, uncontrollable tears streamed down Riopelle’s face, emanating from a place of both joyful redemption following last year’s heartbreaking loss in the state final and contentment as one of nine seniors who helped turn the once-middling Falcons (16-2-1) into state champs.
“Those seniors are the reason this program is in the place we’re in right now,” Vierkorn said. “They set the standard and I couldn’t be more proud. This is everything we wanted and everything we worked for.”