Since Belanger last played on the squad as a sophomore, the Majors had moved on with Diego Castro in net, but he figured it was worth asking for a final run with his classmates. Meeting with Coach Tony Garza late in the regular season, he promised to earn his playing time.
Over the past seven weeks, Belanger has made good on that pledge, and on Sunday, he ended his Mount Vernon career with an unlikely celebration, the hero at the bottom of a pile of jubilant teammates. After 100 scoreless minutes in the Virginia AAA final, the Majors beat Cosby on penalty kicks, 6-5, to claim their first state title when Belanger punched away an eighth-round attempt.
“I went in saying that I wanted to have fun,” Belanger said. “This is the most fun I’ve ever had playing soccer, especially with these boys, my classmates.”
Mount Vernon (13-8-2) had already survived two postseason shootouts with Belanger in net to reach the state final, but the Majors needed a marathon session to drop Central Region champ Cosby (17-5-1).
With the shootout locked at five apiece after five initial shots and two sudden-death rounds, Mount Vernon entrusted senior captain Erik Rodriguez to take the kick. The senior midfielder had played the whole game save a short breather when he took a cleat to the ankle, and he’d already made his first penalty kick in the fourth round.
This time, Rodriguez stepped up and deposited a left-footed blast just under the crossbar with many of his teammates laying anxiously on their stomachs near midfield.
“It was scary,” Rodriguez said. “I kind of felt like he knew where I was going to go, so I switched it up a little bit and played it high. I about had a heart attack.”
Cosby senior Cayman Fisher had also hit his first penalty kick, but Belanger played close attention to the shooter’s eyes as he prepared for the ensuing attempt and felt confident.
After a step to his right, the goalkeeper used both fists to knock the ball back at the shooter and took off running toward the right corner with his teammates and a group of fans close behind.
“I don’t know what happened after that,” Belanger said. “I was up at one point and then I was on the ground and everybody scattered all around me. It still hasn’t really sunken in yet.”
The 6-foot-2 Belanger had to make just four saves during regulation and four overtimes with Mount Vernon controlling play most of the afternoon. In the shootout, the American University recruit also stopped a shot in the sixth round that would have won it for Cosby.
Belanger ended up playing 13 games for Mount Vernon, assuming full-time duties in a Northern Region quarterfinal win over T.C. Williams that also required penalty kicks. Senior midfielder Rahim Costa-Dorsey, added from the same club this season, joined Belanger to help Majors on a magical run that made their 3-7-2 start seem a distant memory.
“I felt the team was a little more relaxed with him in net,” Garza said. “He’s got the height advantage and the reach advantage, so you have to like that. Having him come back was a godsend for us.”