MONROE – Union Academy girls soccer coach Vic Johnson is admittedly a very hard man to please.
His Cardinals team had their best season in school history after long playoff runs each of the past four years. They were dominant on both sides of the ball.
His defense was brilliant, allowing just seven goals – two of which came on penalty kicks and another with his starters not in the game – and his offense was mesmerizing, scoring 162 goals and averaging 6.2 scores per game.
They won 25 games, including 20 via a shutout, but Johnson admits he was still rarely satisfied until the final whistle sounded.
“For the most part, I never really thought we absolutely dominated anyone all year,” he said. “It was 5-1 in the final and I was still coaching my butt off because I felt like it wasn’t over and that’s how I felt for a lot our games this year. We scored a lot of goals, but I wanted more out of the girls. I thought there was a lot we had to work on, and I definitely thought the games were closer than they were, so we continued to push no matter how the game looked or what the score was.”
That mentality paid off in a big way in the second round of the playoffs.
The Cardinals had blanked Elkin 9-0 in the first round, but found themselves down 2-0 at the half of their second-round game against Bishop McGuinness – a team Johnson and his girls had a score to settle with.
Three years earlier, Union Academy was eliminated in the Final Four of the state playoffs by the Villains, who scored the game’s only goal with 19 seconds to play.
Now, three years later, it seemed Bishop McGuinness could get the best of Union Academy again.
“That was by far the scariest game we played all year,” Johnson said. “They knocked us out of the state tournament three years ago, so it was a bit crazy to be down 2-0 to them at the half, and especially so having given up just two goals all year (to that point).
“But it was a good message for the girls. They believed and we talked about how we thought we really had a good shot at winning that game. They worked so hard that second 40 minutes and they outplayed them and came up with four goals to beat them. The last thing I told them at halftime was that they might think I’m crazy, but I think we’re going to go out and win this game. I think it got them excited and from there we went out and did it.”
The Cardinals got two goals each from Catie O’Grady and Kelsey Havican to win 4-3, but another unfriendly foe awaited in the third round.
Community School of Davidson had eliminated the Cardinals 5-1 in the third round of the playoffs last season. Two years ago, the Spartans again eliminated Union Academy late in the playoffs, this time 4-1 in the Final Four.
But this year, it would be a pair of scores from senior all-state forward Caleigh MacKinnon and a goal from Havican that pushed the Cardinals to a 3-1 win against their rivals and onto the Final Four for the third time in the past four years.
The Cardinals drilled Lincoln Charter 8-0 in the semifinals to advance to the championship game, where they faced Franklin Academy, a team who had lost in the championship game in 2015 and 2016, but were the defending state champions after winning it all last season.
After warming his team up, Johnson said an 80-minute rain delay gave him cause for concern.
“Franklin had been there for the past three years, so I don’t think all of that affected them like it did us,” he said. “They had been there and done that. My girls were nervous having to go on the field and come back off. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
To make matters worse, once the game finally began O’Grady, the Cardinals’ fourth-leading scorer and co-captain, had beaten the Franklin back line several times and got off a shot that the Franklin keeper made a gorgeous save on. On the play, however, O’Grady hurt her hamstring. Just five minutes in, she would be lost for the match.
“It was a little scary at that point,” Johnson admitted.
But 10 minutes later, MacKinnon would add two goals to give the Cardinals a lead they would never relinquish.
“Caleigh MacKinnon ended her career with just under 180 goals and she’ll be in the state record books because of it and deservingly so,” Johnson said. “But what the stats don’t show is what she did for us this year. Instead of her being the dominant scorer and doing everything by herself, this year she got more people involved and that made our team better. She only had 35 goals instead of 55 or 65 like she scored two years ago, but she had 25 assists and she got everyone involved, making our team so much more dangerous. Teams couldn’t just mark her, they had to check everyone.”
MacKinnon would add another goal and Havican would join her with a hat trick in the finals for the 6-1 win.
While the offense was great, the defense did what it did all year and didn’t allow Franklin’s all-state striker Kennedy Capps a clean look all game.
“We handed them one goal,” Johnson said. “But we limited them to two shots on goal in 80 minutes of soccer. Now they ended up with five, but three of those were free kicks. That defense was phenomenal. They have an all-state kid up top and we shut her down. They decided that was their job and they did it.
But that’s how it was all year because in practice we had one of the best offenses and one of the best defenses in the state on the same team. When they competed against each other, it was the best of the best, and I think that was a huge factor making each of those lines better.”
Johnson credited the back five of seniors Cameron Lacroix and Jessie Hinson, junior Emma Brewer and freshman Mya Manivanh along with sophomore Chiara Coppin as the heart and soul of the defense.
But, when the final whistle blew, Johnson said he could finally appreciate all that his team had accomplished this season.
“The best part when the final whistle blew was seeing the kids’ faces,” he said. “When I saw the joy, the ecstasy, the pure joy and maybe even a little relief, it made my day. Winning is great, but to see how much effort they put in, how much they cared and what they got out of it got me the most. That was an awesome moment.”
The Cardinals will graduate Lacroix and Hinson along the back line and MacKinnon, the program’s all-time leading scorer, but have a lot of pieces back to perhaps make another run at a title next year.
“We only graduate three seniors,” Johnson said. “Now, two of them are tremendous and the right side of our defense. Then we obviously lose (MacKinnon) who is irreplaceable. I’m not going to say anything about next year, but, yeah, they could be pretty good.”