St. Rose's Katie McLaughlin blocks a goal during the Nov. 7 South Jersey Non-Public B championship game against Rutgers Prep.  Rich Hundley photo
St. Rose's Katie McLaughlin blocks a goal during the Nov. 7 South Jersey Non-Public B championship game against Rutgers Prep. Rich Hundley photo

It was moments after one of the most – if not the most – disappointing high school losses of her life. But Julianne Leskauskas would rather lose a heartbreaking championship game than not have played in it at all.

The St. Rose High School senior midfielder missed her sophomore season with the Purple Roses in order to play academy soccer with her club team. She returned to help the Belmar school to last year’s NJSIAA Non-Public B championship game, and was hoping to get at least that far this year and hopefully win it all before embarking on her career at Rutgers University.

Photo Gallery: St. Rose v. Rutgers Prep – South Jersey Non-Public B championship

But it wasn’t to be, as Rutgers Prep won the first South Jersey Non-Public B title in program history by taking a 1-0 victory over the visiting Roses in the championship game Nov. 7 in Somerset. The Argonauts scored the game’s lone goal with 4:29 remaining to avenge a 1-0 loss to St. Rose in last year’s semifinals.

Like most of her teammates, Leskauskas was in tears afterward. After grieving the loss, the dynamic midfielder discussed what it meant to play high school ball the past two years – the gut-wrenching defeat notwithstanding.

“Oh my gosh, you have no idea,” said Leskauskas, a member of St. Denis Parish, Manasquan. “I will always regret not playing my sophomore year. But I think it showed me how much I appreciate everyone here and how much I appreciate high school soccer – and playing for a school and just the feeling of winning and working for the person next to you. It’s a big thing, I really love it.”

She and her teammates all showed a love of the game and played it with an extreme passion against a Rutgers Prep team  that has slowly been building itself into a premiere program. With much of the game played in a blustery wind, each team traded scoring opportunities throughout the contest.

Early on, it was Rutgers Prep (19-1) with the territorial advantage as it got several shots off. St. Rose (17-4) began to take the play later in the half and appeared to have the lead when Leskauskas, who finished the year with 34 goals and 13 assists, rocketed a shot off the inside of the post that flew across the goal mouth and stayed out of the goal. Bad luck bit her again early in the second half when another shot went off the crossbar. In essence, she was about five inches away from scoring two goals.

“They were going in until they didn’t,” she said. “It was just not my day for finishing. We took the chances we could. This game was so high-intensity through the entire thing from start to finish. There was not a second that the intensity of the game didn’t go down, so it was hard to get those opportunities, and when we got them, we didn’t put them in the back of the net. It happens. It’s really sad, but it’s OK.”

Midway through the second half, Rutgers Prep had a flurry of six straight shots on goal that were all saved by Katie McLaughlin. It then became St. Rose’s turn to pepper the net, only to be turned away four straight times by Rutgers keeper Emma Littman.

As overtime loomed, Argonauts freshman Melina Rebimbas lifted a free kick into the goal box. A shot was deflected by a defender, but the rebound was banged home by Isabella Pellecchia for what proved to be a golden goal.

It was the only blemish on an otherwise outstanding day for McLaughlin and defenders Celia Tave, Jenna Defazio, Kaity McKeown and Caity Clayton.

“It’s actually the first time our back line has been fit since the Wall game (Sep. 7),” coach Zach Savacool said. “We finally got to get them on the field again at the same time all together, which was awesome. They were absolutely excellent.

“Through the run of play, I think we’ve conceded three goals all year and the rest have been corner kicks and free kicks, and that’s what happened today. They’re great open field defenders and they showed that again, just making incredibly strong challenges throughout the game; winning the head balls, winning the second balls, just putting their body on the line.”

Savacool felt there might have been a few nerves in the opening minutes before the Roses began to establish themselves. He noted the quick combination passing between Jillian Visceglia, Carol Caputo and Leskauskas made St. Rose “very dangerous.”

“It’s kind of a staple of what we’ve been doing the last three years,” the coach said. “Maggie [Cavanaugh], who played center forward today, covered a ridiculous amount of ground on the field, challenging for every single ball. The girls played off that.

“Once they settled in and got foothold of the game, it certainly could have gone either way. We hit the post twice; they had their chances, so did we. Two great teams playing each other, one team’s gotta lose. I think their effort speaks volumes on what we’ve been working toward and working on for the last two years, and just how tight this group is. Everyone just going to bat for each other the whole time.”

The coach spoke highly of his nine seniors, who included Gabrielle Hueth, Alexia Kaiafas, Leskauskas, Emma McGhee, McKeown, McLaughlin, Tave and Visceglia.

It is a group Leskauskas was proud to be a part of, especially with how it played its final high school game.

“If we could have done anything better, it was put the ball in the back of the net,” she said. “We played so hard, and every girl on that field put 110 percent into everything they were doing. … I am so, so proud of every single one of these girls today.”

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