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TAMPA — Maggie Dalessio hasn’t always wanted to be a goalkeeper, though if you look at the very first picture taken of her on a soccer field, she is only 4 years old and standing in the net.
But she had certain characteristics — a “natural goalieness” she calls it — that made the position hard to avoid.
Oh, she tried.
She grew up playing a little bit of everywhere. Some years, she wanted to play in the field. Some years, she wanted to play keeper.
One year, when she didn’t want to play either, she quit.
Then came high school, and the time for flip-flopping was over. She voted for playing in the field, before her coach voted against it.
“I made the team as a freshman, and we didn’t have a keeper,” she said. “Then one of my lovely teammates mentioned to Coach that I used to play there.”
And the rest, as they say, is St. Petersburg Catholic history.
For the first time, the underrated, unlikely and at this point it’s fair to say unbelievable Barons will play, thanks mostly to Dalessio’s natural goalieness, for a state championship Friday against Gulliver Prep in the Class 3A final.
Thursday afternoon, under gray skies that seemed to get darker and darker for the Barons the longer their state semifinal against Lake Highland Prep wore on, Dalessio saved the day by officially saving three penalty kicks.
In actuality, she saved four. The last one, the one that clinched the victory, she had to save twice.
On the first save, which set off a wild celebration, the officials ruled Dalessio had illegally stepped forward before the shot.
So after they cleared the Barons off the field for a re-do, she re-did, stopping the penalty kick again.
“I don’t even know how I did it,” she said, still beaming 20 minutes after the fact. “It’s just an in-the-moment thing, ya know?”
She knew where every shot was going, and of the five she faced, she stoned four of them.
The first one: she dove to her right and smothered the low shot.
The second one: anticipated perfectly, she took two small shuffles to her left and pushed away a chest high try.
The third one got by Dalessio, but only because it was played perfectly to the upper 90, though again, she was headed that way.
And the last two, they never had a chance.
She did all this while looking calm, cool and confident.
“I think the key to being a good keeper is being mentally strong,” Dalessio said. “You have to be confident, and your teammates have to see that.”
By the end of a harrowing regulation and overtime, the Barons needed to see that.
They had literally dragged themselves into penalty kicks. They were exhausted.
They survived the final 25 minutes of regulation when it appeared they had nothing left to give.
“We were dragging,” coach Gary Kolb said.
And fortunate — one shot clanged off the crossbar, and had Lake Highland Prep’s leading scorer not been injured early in the second half, it’s hard to imagine the Barons weathering the storm.
Penalty shots weren’t the only way to win Thursday, but for the mostly punchless Barons, it was probably the best way.
While Olivia Wilkinson, Genevieve DiVito and Elizabeth Prather were burying their kicks, Dalessio was burying the Highlanders with her saves.
What made her great Thursday was mostly this: she is confident, instinctive and fearless, and all of those things tend to rub off on her teammates.
“When we went to penalty kicks,” Kolb said, “I knew that we were going to win.”
Maggie Dalessio hasn’t always wanted to be a goalkeeper, though if you look at the very last picture taken of her on a soccer field, she is being hugged by her teammates for playing it so well.