Lady Crusaders continue dynasty, win fourth straight state championship

By CAMAL PETRO,

BRANDON – Move over Bill Belichick, Sacred Heart Lady Crusaders coach Joe Falla Sr. has built a dynasty in Hattiesburg.

Falla and his Lady ‘Saders claimed their fourth straight, and sixth of the last seventh, 1A/2A/3A State Championship Saturday, defeating St. Andrew’s 2-0 in a rematch of the 2018’s state title game. Sacred Heart won that one 2-1 in overtime.

“It never gets old,” Falla said. “This right here is like the very first one. Winning never gets old.

“It’s history. I don’t think a lot of people give us credit because we’re a small school, but we play 1A, 2A and 3A schools. Bellicheck, I’m right there with him.”

PHOTOS: Click for game and celebration photos from Joe Harper. 

When the Lady Crusaders started this run in 2016, they already had the two state titles from 2013 and 2014 seasons. Then-seventh grader Olivia Ware scored the game-winning goal in golden goal overtime to begin this window of dominance. On Saturday, she ended the scoreless game in the 45th minute.

“No, it feels like yesterday,” Ware said of her 2016 State Championship-clinching goal. “I can’t believe it was my seventh-grade year and now I’m onto my junior season. It’s crazy.”

Five minutes into the second half, freshman Gracie Falla quickly sent a free kick up the field to Ware on the right side. Ware collected the ball and recognized the St. Andrew’s goalkeeper coming out, so she chipped a shot over her outstretched hands, and it bounced into the goal to give Sacred Heart a 1-0 lead.

“Gracie just has such a good foot on her,” Ware said. “I’ve always trusted her. She just knows where to go with the ball. So, I knew right when she kicked it, that if not me, anybody was going to get on the ball because she knows what to do with it.

“When I got it, and I took the first chance I had and just chipped it over the goalie.”

For seniors Jessica Hyde, Shae Rutland, Blair Viator and Allie Bilbo, they’ll leave the school with four titles in all four years of high school, with a few of those girls adding championships while members of the team in junior high.

Viator, who overcame a knee injury from last season, put the game out of reach with a goal in the 57th minute to make it 2-0. Her shot from 25 yards out snuck in under the crossbar.

“I just told them to slow down a little bit and find feet,” Falla said of his halftime message to the girls. “Once we did that, the game changed.”

Sacred Heart outshot the Lady Saints 17-13, while the Lady Crusaders held the 5-4 shot-on-goal advantage. Sacred Heart keeper Jillian Hall recorded five saves in the contest, including a barrage of shots from St. Andrew’s in the final 20 minutes.

Falla had some tricks up he sleeves, too. Instead of starting the game with Lauren Jones on the right wing and Bilbo playing on the backline, he swapped those two to give a different look. Hyde played the majority of the game on defense, as well, which will be her position when she plays college ball, but she’s been a threat up top for the Lady Crusaders all season.

“I kind of changed it up a little bit,” Falla said. “Give them a little something to see different. That’s me. Papa is a little tricky.”

The first half featured an even game between the two teams, as Sacred Heart recorded eight shots with two on goal, while St. Andrew’s had even shots and two on goal. While the Lady Saints spent more time on Sacred Heart’s side of the field, the Lady Crusaders had cleaner tries at the goal.

Lauren Jones had a ball go off the crossbar in the 15th minute, then Gabby Falla and Gracie Falla both shot the ball high off 30-yard free kicks in the 29th and 33rd minutes.

St. Andrew’s had a ball hit off the crossbar in the first half, too, and junior Phoebe Xu had a 27-yard free kick saved by Sacred Heart keeper Jillian Hall.