STATE CHAMPS ... AGAIN!

Viera girls top Niceville 2-1 to make it back-to-back state soccer titles


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Viera High's Sarah Kelliher (left) and Jordan Walsh (right) hold their state championship medals after the Hawks' 2-1 victory over Niceville in the Class 4A state title game at Melbourne High, And as Walsh demonstrates, this one was twice as nice. Viera has now won back-to-back state titles.

VIERA VOICE Carl Kotala

One by one, they looked at their gold medals, a smile and a sense of accomplishment etched in their expressions.

And as the cameras closed in for those photos and memories they’ll carry with them forever, a few members of the Viera High girls soccer team playfully took a little bite of gold.

“It tastes,” senior Jordan Walsh said. “Like victory.”

And victory was certainly sweet for the Hawks Friday night as they defeated the Niceville Eagles 2-1 in the Class 4A state championship game at Melbourne High.

It’s the second straight state championship for the Viera girls soccer team, making it the first program in school history to win back-to-back titles.

Like anything worth achieving, it wasn’t easy. To get their second gold medal, the Hawks went through a playoff run that included a one-loss Edgewater team and a string of unbeaten in Mitchell, nationally-ranked No. 1 St. Thomas Aquinas and finally, Niceville.

“This is just the best feeling in the world,” senior Sarah Kelliher said. “There were so many people who said (last year) was a fluke, or we got lucky and our class wasn’t that strong.

“We went through a tough region. We went through games when we were down and we came back. And then we came here to state, we played the No. 1 team in the nation and we kind of proved a lot of people wrong doing that.

“Coming out here tonight, we just wanted to get our business done. We fought, just like in every other game, and we did that.”

Niceville (23-1) certainly didn’t play like a team that was impressed with Viera’s win over St. Thomas Aquinas. The Eagles were physical and aggressive right from the start.

Kelliher, who missed last season’s title game because of knee injury, put the Hawks ahead 1-0 at the 17 minute mark after teammate JJ Bryant played a typically well-struck free kick into the box.

“JJ is amazing at free kicks,” Kelliher said. “She hit a great ball in and all year, (coaches) Courtney and Brian (Lundy having been telling me), ‘Crash the net. Crash the net.’

“I’m a smaller player, so it’s hard for me to win balls in the air. I just follow everything in. The goalie got her hands on it, but she just happened to drop it. It dropped right to my feet, I was right on the line and flicked it in.”

One goal was good enough to beat St. Thomas Aquinas in the state semifinals, but it wasn’t enough against Niceville, which answered with just under nine minutes remaining in the first half on a goal by Kayla Fernandez.

Whether the Hawks were still tired from their epic battle with St. Thomas Aquinas, or it was the physical style of Niceville – or most likely a combination of both – the Hawks didn’t play their usual possession game in the first half.

And in the second half, with both teams knowing the next goal could be the difference between a state championship and a runner-up trophy, they were laying it on the line.

Viera seniors Sarah Sanford, Kelliher and Jordan Walsh were all over the field, particularly Walsh who had missed time during the game because of a leg injury.

“I was like, ‘I’m not letting this end. This is not going down like this. We will win this game even if I have to walk off with one leg. We’re going for it,’” Walsh said. “I think that energy really played into everybody else’s. We all feed off each other. We all wanted to finish with two state championships.”

Every corner kick. Every free kick. Any run toward the goal seemed to raise the hackles on the back of your neck, wondering if this could be it.

Because this wasn’t just a matter of one team wanting it more.

“The one thing I have to say about that team is they had a lot of heart,” Walsh said. “They really wanted it just as bad as we wanted it. They came out and they fought, and we fought. It was a battle. And in the end, we fought through it and we got our goal.”

That goal came with 7:23 remaining in the game.

Walsh lined up for a free kick from about 20 yards out and sent it toward the net, where Hollyn Knight was trying to get her head on it. There was a big scramble in front of the net and, how the ball actually got in the net wasn’t clear. But only one thing mattered.

The ball went in.

Goalkeeper Sydney Lau would have to make a couple of big saves in the closing moments, but as she has been all season, the sophomore was money in crunch time.

Sanford, Shannon Gosule, Morgan Pulliam and Julia Ramsey were big in the back all game long as well.

And with Knight, Brooke Walsh and Jordan Walsh putting pressure up front and the Hawks getting solid play from Bryant, Kelliher, Mollie Roe and help off the bench from Emily Bodi and Maya Norton, the Hawks were up to the task.

Winning the state championship was a team win all the way, so the roles played by Cori Fisher, Jaclyn Zumsteg, Mya Norton, Alex Capalbo, Cassie Bodi, Kylie Pulliam, Kailee Holland, Hannah Lucas, Hannah Howe and Kristen Clark throughout the season were vital as well.

“I’m very grateful for this team,” Jordan Walsh said. “We pushed through, fought for everything. There were multiple times when we’ve come from behind.

“We put everything out there. I couldn’t be more proud. This is a great feeling.”

As her players were celebrating, Viera coach Courtney Lundy couldn’t help but think of all the other people who have played a role in the Hawks’ success this season, from her own coaching staff to others who have come in to talk or work with the players.

“I’m just thinking about everyone who’s not here, who has helped with the program,” Lundy said. “You know, it takes a village. … I just think about everyone who brought us here. It’s pretty awesome.”

Friday was the final game in a Viera uniform for seniors Capalbo, Kelliher, Sanford and Jordan Walsh.

But talk about leaving a legacy.

Making Viera a powerhouse program, a state championship program, had been their goal since they started playing varsity soccer for the Hawks. And that’s just what they’ve done.

Go ahead, grab another bite of that gold.

“There have been so many ups and downs, so many emotional games,” Jordan Walsh said of her Viera career. “With these girls, fighting on this field with them, playing with them, they really helped me come into my own. I was able to become more of the player that I am.

“I want to thank them. They made my senior year a great year. I can’t be more grateful. I couldn’t ask for a better team, a better program and a better school to play for.”