The game ended. Their season was finished. Yet Westfield’s players kept running. They took their minds off the ball and instead ran toward each other. Their coaches took off running, too, not stopping until they reached somebody, anybody, to hug.
Under the soft glow of Virginia Beach’s late afternoon sun, the Bulldogs converged near midfield of the National Training Center, where they had just won their school’s first field hockey state championship. Their heavily favored opponent, First Colonial, was left to wonder how a third straight state title had slipped away.
“I can’t even believe it,” Westfield senior forward Katie Winesett said. “It feels so unreal right now.”
It was only fitting that Winesett, the metropolitan area’s leading scorer this season, put away the second-half goal that gave Westfield (22-2) the 2-1 victory on Saturday. That play occurred on a penalty corner eight minutes into the second half, when Rachael Ulsh dished to Emily McNamara near the top of the circle. The designed play usually puts Molly O’Sullivan on the left post, but O’Sullivan and Winesett decided to switch positions for this corner. McNamara fired a hard ball toward the left post, and Winesett deftly positioned her stick to redirect the blast into the cage for her 36th tally of the season. It was the last and most important goal of a high school career chock full of them.
From there, 6A South champion First Colonial (21-2) staged a furious rally that saw numerous shots and corners directed at Westfield’s Callie Rennyson. But the sophomore goalie held her own, limiting the highest scoring team in the state to just one goal to preserve the win.
“Our defense was stellar,” Westfield coach Starr Karl said. “We just played our game. We didn’t change anything. We played our game. We just had to step in front of them and beat them to the ball.”
McNamara had a hand in both goals to distinguish herself as the Bulldogs’ other hero on Saturday. The junior midfielder broke the ice with 21 minutes to go in the first half when she took a pass from 25 yards out and weaved through the Patriots’ defense before pushing a half-speed shot past First Colonial goalie Katie Jones. The second-half dish to Winesett gave McNamara her 20th assist on the season, the area’s second highest mark.
McNamara’s goal provided a much-needed confidence boost for a Westfield side that got off to a sluggish start against the Patriots’ high-octane attack. First Colonial — winners of 69 of their previous 71 outings — dictated the pace in the early going with a relentless attack that kept the Bulldogs on their heels. But the Westfield defense, coming off an impressive 3-0 shutout in the previous day’s semifinal against Stafford, held firm until Savanna Sheridan knocked one home off a corner with just under 15 minutes to play in the first half.
Westfield’s resolve stiffened as the game wore on. Up against a two-time defending champion playing on its home astro turf field — a surface markedly different from the field turf found throughout Fairfax County — the Bulldogs never felt they were playing at a disadvantage during the final. Instead, they viewed the fast surface as conducive to the skills they’d honed playing indoor hockey at the club level.
Nor were the 6A North Region champions scared of the opponent itself. As usual, Karl scheduled a preseason scrimmage against First Colonial this August to give her team a feel for the high level of competition they might face down the line. Westfield lost that scrimmage 3-2, but they came away from it knowing they could play with anybody.
“I feel like it was theirs to lose and ours to win,” Karl said of Saturday’s final. “The pressure was on them. We had never been there; we didn’t know what it felt like… We didn’t play scared; we didn’t play timid.”
Saturday’s result made Westfield the first 6A state champions of the VHSL’s newly implemented classification system, which now crowns three field hockey state champions (6A, 5A, 4-1A) instead of two.
More importantly, the victory handed Fairfax County’s longest tenured field hockey coach a trophy she’d never touched. In 24 years of coaching high school field hockey, Karl had racked up six region titles (including 2012 and 2013 with Westfield), but she had never captured that elusive state championship.
“I’m so happy for her,” Winesett said. “She deserves this more than anyone. She’s been coaching for so long, and I give her all the credit for how far we’ve come. She’s an amazing coach and I’m just really glad we got her her first [state] championship.”
Karl soaked in the magnitude of the moment while deflecting praise onto the group that made it happen.
“It’s very humbling. I’m so honored,” she said. “What a great group of kids to do it with. I couldn’t be happier for them. That’s what it’s about.”