Gonzaga forward Grant Johnson was the most opportunistic player on the field Tuesday against No. 1 DeMatha, but as sweat perpetually ran down his face — so did the look of a frustrated striker. He had three headers in front of the net go begging in the second half, two that sailed just high of the crossbar and another that was pick-pocketed by the Stags goalie Brendan Burke.
But Johnson was relentless, and his team needed him to be. The defending Washington Catholic Athletic Conference champions return just a few players from one of the country’s best rosters in 2012 — and the Eagles found themselves in a hole all afternoon Tuesday — but Johnson frantically converted a header with just under two minutes to play to lift No. 3 Gonzaga to a stunning 3-2 comeback win over DeMatha at Heurich Field in Hyattsville.
“They were out to get us. We beat them last year in the [WCAC] championship, it’s the first time seeing them since then. We have no returning starters,” Johnson said. “The team really bonded together.”
Looking motivated to respond to a shootout loss in last year’s WCAC title game, DeMatha (2-3, 0-1) also entered Tuesday’s contest having lost two straight matches, but took the upper hand early in the second half after sophomore Strick Newsom drilled a rebound into the top left corner of the net to give the Stags a 2-0 lead. The Eagles (2-1-1, 1-0-1) looked stunned as Newsome and his teammates celebrated for several moments, but the pace of the game changed after that point.
Several minutes later, Avery Beddard delivered his own top-shelf goal from about 10 yards out to put Gonzaga on the board, and the Eagles began building offensive rhythm by throwing wave after wave of runs at DeMatha’s back line — and tied the game with 10 minutes to play on a 30-foot drop-in from Matt McCann, which was tipped in from a few feet out by Phillip Littleton.
“We knew we could come back,” Beddard said. “It was unbelievable. There’s not much more to say.”
It was Littleton who provided the cross to Johnson for the game-winner. Last week was a difficult, uncharacteristic stretch for the Eagles, who lost 3-1 to Georgetown Prep, tied 1-1 with St. Mary’s Ryken and had their game against St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes postponed due to lightning. But Johnson said the group continued to grind out preparations for its fiercest rival. One of the plans during Monday’s practice was to smooth out entry passes from wide angles.
“We built it well. I think it really paid off,” Johnson said. “It was right on my head. If I wouldn’t have finished it, it would’ve been a shame.”