Staff Photo: John Bohn Greater Atlanta Christian's Rachel Garcia (2) takes control of the ball while defended by Blessed Trinity's Indy Wildschut (14) during the first half of the state championship Class AA game on Saturday. GAC defeated Blessed Trinity 1-0 to win the state title.
ROSWELL -- After falling late on penalty kicks to Blessed Trinity three times over the last two seasons, Greater Atlanta Christian figured deciding Saturday night's Class AA girls soccer state championship game between the two teams much earlier.
The No. 2 state-ranked Spartans did just that as Dani Marcano's goal just over six minutes into the game gave them the early lead that goalkeeper Lizzie White and the defense made stand up for 1-0 victory at top-ranked Blessed Trinity, giving GAC its first state title.
"It's been elusive," GAC coach Troy Bendickson said of the title. "We we did it against a team (wins have) been elusive against ... on their field. So, that feels good."
The Spartans (18-2-1) sprinted out of the gate, getting the game's first scoring opportunity 6:05 after the opening kickoff and making it count.
Kayla Puzas pushed up on left wing and sent a long cross into the penalty area just to the right wing side of the near post.
That's where Marcano outleaped her defender and sent a header back to the left against the momentum of a charging Blessed Trinity goalkeeper Meredith Carson and inside the back post to put GAC up 1-0.
"It was so big (to get the early goal)," Marcano said. "It was great for our team. ... They (Blessed Trinity) are a great team, but I was still really confident after that goal."
The Spartan duo had a chance to add to the lead less than two minutes later when Marcano sent Puzas on a right-wing run, and the midfielder let fly with a shot that rang off the crossbar.
But that chance seemed to wake up Blessed Trinity, which controlled the territorial play much of the rest of the half.
The Titans' (15-4-2) best chances came in the 20th minute, when Devyn Doyle sent a free kick into the box that GAC keeper Lizzie White got a piece of before the Spartans defense cleared the rebound, and 32nd minute, when a corner kick from the left wing was deflected on net before being smothered by White.
"We wanted to come out the gate fast, and we did," Bendickson said. "Even if we went up early, we didn't want to defend. We were going to play our game the whole time. We did have a 20-minute span where they put us on our back heels, but that wasn't our goal. We weren't trying to protect the lead. We wanted more."
Rachael Garcia also nearly gave the Spartans more with a pair of good scoring chances from about 30 yards out late in the half, but both were punched out by Carson, and the GAC lead was still just 1-0 heading into intermission.
And the Spartans made sure Blessed Trinity's scoring chances were scarce in the second half by playing aggressive up front and with White and the defense making plays when they needed to.
Two plays in particular were crucial in GAC keeping the lead.
First in the game's 57th minute, Kelsey Fervier made a big slide tackle to disposses a charging Grace Damaska on the left wing and deny the Titans' forward a scoring opportunity in the penalty area.
But perhaps the biggest play was made by White with 3:28 remaining.
A long through ball looked like it would make its way to a sprinting Damaska in the penalty area, but the Spartans' goalkeeper rushed off her line to smother it before the pass could make its way through.
"I knew that Grace on my left side was a really strong player," White said. "So, our coaches are like, 'Be aggressive. Be aggressive. Go out for it.' I saw the ball coming in, and I knew I just had to give it my all. Last year, that's not what we did, and I regretted it. So, I just had to come out for it and give it my all."
And this time when the final buzzer sounded, the game was over, and White and the Spartans didn't have to sweat out the penalty kick shootout, which had haunted them against the Titans the past two seasons.
"We've been working on those all week," White said. "But it's really nice to beat them in regulation. You know it's real. That's the best way to end the game."