Even though the team was neck deep in a new culture brought on by a new head coach, George Mason High School’s girls soccer team ends its season in the same gratifying fashion by clinching the Class 2 state championship for the 11th season in a row.
Touching the trophy typically remedies all the scrapes and scars from the months-long journey to the top, but Mason (17-4) had a tough row to hoe during the 2018 season.
Match-ups against higher classified opponents as well as revamped Bull Run District competition challenged the Mustangs’ offensive acumen.
Along with that, first-year Mason head coach George Bitadze’s insistence on tinkering with the players’ in-game tactics and line-ups (though the latter was modified due to injuries as much as it was Bitadze’s curiosity) kept the Mustangs in a state of flux.
It delayed the team’s crystallization into state-contending form until much later in the season than previous iterations.
But by achieving the same end result, it’s hard to knock the process that kept Mason’s illustrious streak alive.
“The team matured at the right time and right place. The shaky regular season was due to injuries and the fact that the girls had to get used to the new coach and a new approach to the game,” Bitadze said. “What set us apart from all other teams in playoffs and at the state tournament was the fact that we were playing overall team game versus all of the other teams were heavily relying on their 1 or 2 best players. Our girls gained a lot of confidence through the region and conference finals and were ready to become state champions.”
An early morning semifinal game against Maggie Walker Governor’s School on June 8 would be the Mustangs’ first test of weekend.
That test became all the more real once the Dragons netted a goal in the first 30 seconds of the contest to put Mason in desperation mode from then on out.
Yet the Mustangs responded accordingly.
They maintained possessions throughout the remainder of the half and dictated the flow of the game.
When Maggie Walker threatened to ignite, Mason quickly stamped them out. And while offensive possessions weren’t fruitful right away, the constant probing allowed the Mustangs to determine the soft spots in the Dragons’ back line. Eventually, senior midfielder Victoria Rund connected with sophomore forward Emma Rollins for the equalizer to go into the half 1-1.
A second-half stalemate pushed the semifinal into extra time.
While VHSL rules allot two five-minute periods to break the tie, Mason would only need a short surge into the first overtime period to break the tie when Rollins returned the favor to Rund for the go-ahead goal and a 2-1 lead.
The defense held strong for the remaining period and a half to cement their spot in the state final against Appomattox High School.
Against Appomattox, Bitadze and the Mustangs had to overcome the pressure of keeping the streak alive versus a team salivating at the chance to unseat them.
But the coach never wavered in his belief of the team’s ability to repeat because he’d seen their growth.
Instead, he just wanted to make sure they weren’t so wrapped up in the possibility of losing that it would paralyze their play.
“The biggest challenge was to help the girls to deal with the pressure they felt because of the team’s successful past,” Bitadze said. “[But] I did not feel much pressure because I felt my girls were at their best and I also watched the other semifinal. I was confident none of the teams were better than us and we had a chance to finish it off.”
Mason lived up to their coach’s billing.
A flurry of offensive opportunities around the net didn’t put the Mustangs on the board throughout the first half, but did put them in the mind of Appomattox defenders.
That anxiety translated into some overly aggressive play by the Raiders, who tripped junior midfielder Maura Mann in the box to set up Rund’s penalty kick and the game’s only goal in the 58th minute.
The closest Appomattox would get to knotting the score up is a free kick near the 70th minute that senior goalkeeper Laura Whitaker snuffed out.
A season of ups and downs ended at the same peak as the previous 10 years for Mason. Despite adjusting to a new coach and his team-centric take on the game, the Mustangs acclimated and achieved what their predecessors had for a decade before them. That’s the mark of a true dynasty.