By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
OCEAN CITY — A couple of months ago, Caitlin Olkowski was in eighth grade, probably embarrassed about the graduation lawn sign her folks had put out to commemorate her ascension into high school.
Today, she’s a South Jersey champion.
The freshman forward scored just her fifth goal of the season on Monday afternoon at Carey Stadium, but it might be the best one she ever scores in her life. Her tally in the 87th minute — nearly seven minutes into overtime — was the “Golden Goal” as second-seeded Shawnee beat No. 1 Ocean City, 3-2, to capture the South Jersey Group 3 championship.
The goal came after the Renegades had squandered an early 2-0 lead before fending off heavy pressure from the Red Raiders throughout the final 20 minutes to force overtime. In the first overtime period, going against the wind coming off the ocean, Shawnee built an attack that ended with Olkowski knocking in a pass that was deflected off another player.
“It was kind of all a blur, but that’s why you have to call for the ball. People dream about days like this and you just have to keep working for it to come true,” she said. “We didn’t really know if the ref was going to call (a hand ball) because he wasn’t really calling that many fouls, so we just kept playing. It was crossed in — it might have hit off another girl — then I just hit it in.”
“I even told the girls let’s just get through this first overtime and get to the wind in the second overtime and we’ll go for it then, but they really came through,” said Renegades coach Drew Wagner. “I felt like even with the wind in our face we were able to move the ball, get in behind them and create some opportunities. We had some great opportunities to score but they made some great saves. They were a really good team so we were happy we could move the ball and get some goals.”
Shawnee (18-2-1, 6-0 Olympic American) jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first half and seemed as though it was poised for a blowout victory, but Ocean City (21-2, 10-0 Cape-Atlantic League American) got a huge goal from Brooke Liebrand with six minutes left in the first half to shave the deficit to 2-1. Then, with 18:30 to go, Ocean City tied the game at 2 when Ashley Rhodes ripped a shot from 25 yards out into the upper right corner.
The rest of the second half featured some tremendous goalkeeping from Shawnee’s Mackenzie Borbi and Ocean City’s Kaia Ray. With a little less than six minutes left, Ocean City had a great opportunity to take the lead when Naomi Nnewihe beat a couple of Renegades defenders and was closing in on a one-on-one situation with Borbi. But Borgi played the aggressor and came way off her line to make a save, then somehow gathered in the rebound before Ocean City’s McKenna Chisholm, who was trailing the play, could get a touch on the ball.
“She might be the best athlete on our team, in our school and in all of South Jersey. She’s amazing,” Wagner said of his keeper. “She’s a competitor and she kept us in the game with that great save. I felt like our girls were like, ‘if Mac is going to make that kind of save, we’re not going to let her down.’”
“It was very nerve-wracking, but it really just comes down to confidence. Especially on that breakaway, you just have to go for it. You can’t really second-guess yourself because that’s how goals happen. I knew she was going to take big touches because that’s what she had been doing all game, so the moment she started beating our defenders and getting closer to the box, I just decided to come out because the closer I am to the ball the less of an area she has to shoot. I came out, it hit off me and I just kind of crawled for my life to get it, and thankfully I did. You definitely hit the panic button and you have to go find the ball,” Borbi said. “We learned from last year, when we lost to Cherry Hill West, we knew we needed to come out with the energy no matter what. We talked about it — if we were up and they came back, or if we were down, we had to keep our energy up. We just wanted to prove to everyone that even though we don’t score as much and we might be considered a low-scoring team, we still know how to pull through with a win.”
In the last 90 seconds, Ray made a tremendous save on a point-blank shot by Makenzie McCready off a cross from Olkowski.
Wagner talked about how Shawnee’s difficult schedule prepared the Renegades to win on the biggest stage. The Renegades’ schedule has included teams like Seneca — which also won a South Jersey title on Monday — Paul VI, Eastern, Delran, Bishop Eustace and Williamstown. The coach knew exactly what kind of challenge the Red Raiders presented. Ocean City came into the game having gone 36-1-4 the past two seasons.
“Every game is a battle in the Olympic Conference, and Ocean City — what a great team. I’ve never seen a team that big and tall,” Wagner said. “Their size is a tremendous advantage and they play really well. That’s a great team and I have a lot of respect for them. We’re very happy to get this win today.”
“That definitely prepared us,” Borbi said of Shawnee’s tough schedule. “We knew Ocean City was going to be a tough team, but we pushed through a lot in practice. We try to make sure everything is done to perfection, or as close as it can be. We never give up and when we play tough competition that builds us because we can learn from our mistakes, like in the Coaches Cup when we lost to Eastern in PKs — that really built us for this moment.”
Borbi said the Renegades will take a moment to enjoy this championship before the Group 3 semifinals on Thursday morning, and that they intend to play with confidence against Central Jersey champion Brick Memorial.
“We just have to play with confidence, work hard and keep up our energy,” she said. “We just need to keep playing the way we have to. We talked (before the overtime) about just relaxing because everything got a little bit frazzled. We knew what was working, we knew we could cross it and get shots. We just needed to relax and play our game, because when we play our game, we win.
“This is pretty awesome. I don’t really have any other words except it’s awesome.”
WHAT’S NEXT: Central Jersey champion Brick Memorial at South Jersey champion Shawnee, Thursday at 11 a.m. Ocean City’s season is complete.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays