ST. PETERSBURG — And an eighth grader shall lead them.
As a program with typically smaller roster numbers, Shorecrest Prep has always leaned on its middle school athletes to step up and perform. Even with a berth in the Class 2A championship game on the line, Friday night was no different.
And one of the team’s youngest players delivered as Kaja Dionne brought energy, effort and a pair of goals in the Chargers’ 3-1 victory over Fort Lauderdale Westminster Academy.
Entering its first state title contest with a 14-3-2 record, Shorecrest will take on Orange Park St. John’s Country Day — ranked eighth in the state by MaxPreps and a 4-0 victor over Winter Park International Community School — on Wednesday at 1 p.m. at Deland’s Spec Martin Stadium.
“How hard we've worked to get to this spot, it's crazy how one goal can make a huge difference to a team.”
Dionne couldn't have been more right, although it was a Westminster goal off of a penalty kick by standout freshman Lilly Nava in the sixth minute that helped Shorecrest shake off its collective nerves and respond.
“We came into the game confident we could play well and sometimes things like that happen,” Chargers coach Neal Wolfrath said of the inadvertent hand ball in the penalty area that created Nava’s 34th goal of the year. “But even through we were trailing, we’d be okay and we’d create goals from our chances.”
The chances came almost instantaneously after the score as seniors Christina Steffens and Taylor Andrews and sophomore Jada Tadros buzzed the Lions net over the next 18 minutes, forcing starting keeper Becca Forrester (eight saves) to stay on her toes.
It looked as if Westminster’s lead would survive the first-half onslaught until an entry pass pinballed off of a pair of Lions defenders and into the box. Dionne was there, jumped on the loose ball and drilled it into the left side of the goal to tie the score 20 seconds before the break.
“It was craazy,” Dionne said. “I said to myself, 'Wow, that's the diagonal ball I wanted'. Everyone was so excited after, it got everybody's heads up.”
With Dionne running the right wing like a girl possessed and her teammates inspired by her energy, Shorecrest only increased the pressure to start the final 40 minutes. Forcing five Westminster fouls in the first 15 minutes allowed Steffens, Dionne and sophomore Lilianna Baralt to send balls netward until the heat finally melted the Lions defense.
Jumping on a loose ball just outside of the penalty area, sophomore Gabby Marshall noticed Forrester was pulled out from the net and lofted a perfect half-volley over the keeper and into the net at the 60-minute mark for a lead Shorecrest would not lose.
“To have the technique to hit the ball off the bounce as it's coming down, that's not an easy goal to score,” Wolfrath said. “A great finish, a great goal … it was the best goal Gabby's scored this year.”
Another hustle play earned Dionne her second score and the Chargers a crucial insurance marker.
Sprinting for a midfield pass fed into the box, Dionne survived contact with the Westminster defense and Forrester, followed the ball as it leaked behind the group and tucked it home for her team-best 14th goal of the season.
“She’s been doing that all year; it’s not a surprise for us,” Wolfrath said. “When she clicks like that, everyone kind of feeds off of that and it lifts the whole team. And she loves doing it, too.”
“Even though my lungs and my whole body hurt, I still had to go super, super hard to get to the spot we wanted,” Dionne said. “We worked harder and faster for this game; our work rate changed.”
Westminster (13-7) managed to send in a couple of long-distance Nava shots in response but never truly threatened Shorecrest's lead.
Of the success his young roster has achieved, Wolfrath said: “It might surprise people who don't watch us play but it doesn't surprise any of us. Everyone has done something to contribute and that's how it's been all season.”
And now all of those contributions add up to a shot at a state title.