DeMatha's 4-0 victory over Pallotti in Sunday's Washington Catholic Athletic Conference boys soccer final was as sweet as a championship can be for a school so accustomed to winning.
The Stags entered the game with the memories of heartbreaking tournament losses to O'Connell in 1997 and 1998 and the knowledge that they hadn't won a league soccer title since 1987. They responded with a fluid, cohesive performance in the most important match of the year--the perfect culmination to a season-long quest for redemption and respect by a team desperate for both.
When preseason training began in August, DeMatha Coach Steve Powers said he knew his team had the ability to win the WCAC championship. The Stags had been improving since he took over the program two years before, posting a 9-0-4 league record in 1998. And with a senior class that included All-Met defender Matt Oliver, his sturdy fellow defender Tim Esposito and midfield playmaker Marty Shaw, the pieces seemed to be in place.
But Powers said he felt something intangible was missing. So he brought sports psychologist Rob Kehoe to find it.
"This year, we developed a chemistry and a camaraderie that has been missing the last couple of years. For us to win a championship, we were going to need that," Powers said. "We needed someone like Rob to come in and help us find where we need to go."
"He gave us tips about being a team," Oliver said. "Everybody is playing for each other and the whole team takes that pretty seriously. I think we learned that we all have a little more in common than soccer."
The test came Sunday at the RFK Stadium auxiliary field against Prince George's County rival Pallotti. The Stags already had survived a penalty-kick tiebreaker against O'Connell and a two-goal deficit to Good Counsel. Now they faced a physical Pallotti team determined to disrupt DeMatha's fluid ball movement and steal the title.
"Pallotti is a team that will wear you down physically. We couldn't give them a chance to come in hard on us. We had to knock the ball around quickly," Powers said.
The plan was to use the whole field and everyone on it. DeMatha players would have to work hard away from the ball to provide passing options and they would have to play unselfishly. DeMatha would need teamwork.
From the opening kickoff, it was clear DeMatha (13-3-3) had found their formula. Oliver and Esposito took turns supporting an attack driven by Shaw's clever play that soon had the Panthers (13-5-5) on their heels. Ten minutes in, DeMatha had its first goal--a well-placed header by senior forward Fabrice Mukoko off sophomore forward Warren Williams's delicate cross.
The backbreaker followed three minutes later, and it was vintage Shaw. He collected a loose ball at the edge of the penalty area with his back to the goal and juggled it several times, drawing Pallotti's defenders to him before flicking it over his right shoulder to Oliver. The Virginia-bound senior calmly slotted the ball into the far-side netting, and Pallotti was left to chase for the remainder of the game.
"The best reward for playing soccer is playing well, when you go out there and put on a clinic, and you play soccer how it should be played," Shaw said. "The ball is moving, and everyone is involved. It was great. Everyone had a blast. I can't imagine why they wouldn't."
Said Powers: "Everything we talked about in August came to fruition today. That made it even more special. The unity of the team, everyone fighting for one purpose, it was all present."
CAPTION: DeMatha's Fabrice Mukoko raises arms and teammate Mark Murphy offers a hug after the Stags clinched their first boys league championship since 1987.
CAPTION: DeMatha's Fabrice Mukoko, left, tries to angle around Pallotti's Joe Sullivan. The Stags beat the Panthers, 4-0.