Commentary

Nolan Catholic looks to finish the season with a title

Updated: December 19, 2008, 1:42 PM ET
By Sheldon Shealer | ESPNRISE.com

Minutes before the 2006 Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) Division I girls' soccer championship, Nolan Catholic (Fort Worth, Texas) players huddled, and the seniors stressed the importance of winning a title.

Mallory Baum, then a freshman starter, secretly thought to herself, "I want to win it, but if not, I still have three more chances."

Well, nearly three years later, Nolan Catholic still does not have a TAPPS title and time is running out for Baum and a talented senior class. In an amazing run of near misses and close calls, Nolan Catholic has been the state runner-up each of the past seven years -- losing the championship match to Ursuline Academy (Dallas) every time. Six of those matches were decided by one goal. Now, with Nolan Catholic's record at 12-0-0, highlighted by a pair of regular-season, one-goal wins over Ursuline, the Vikings will finally play the role of favorite when the TAPPS state tournament starts in little more than a month.

"Every year we say this is the year," said Baum, a senior midfielder who has nine goals and eight assists and is committed to Southern Methodist University. "We have finally done something [beat Ursuline twice in a year] that has never been done before, so it gives us a lot of hope."

"There are four seniors who have been starting since we were freshmen and we understand how it feels losing in the final," added senior defender Chelsea Heimann, who has committed to North Texas. "We've seen the other seniors go out and not get what they want. We want our senior year to be the year to change that, to make history for our school and our program."

TAPPS is a collection of Texas private schools that are part of the University Interscholastic League (UIL), which oversees athletics for the public school sector. During the past 20 years, Ursuline Academy has dominated the TAPPS girls' soccer scene, similar to the degree that North Carolina has dominated the college women's game. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that a former Tar Heels player, Sue Ellis, was the coach who guided Ursuline into TAPPS and national prominence. Nolan Catholic has been a TAPPS champion -- four times, in fact -- but not since 1989.

While there are often UIL teams stronger than Ursuline and Nolan Catholic in a given year, no UIL program matches the long-term consistency of these two private schools, which are loaded with premier club players. Ursuline has won the past 18 TAPPS state titles (under three different coaches). Nolan Catholic has made the final in all but three of coach Jay Fitzgerald's 11 years at the helm.

"It's frustrating," Fitzgerald admitted. "As a coach, I think we're good enough. We put the players in the right place, we're peaking at the right time, then …"

He stops mid-sentence.

"Then" is the familiar outcome and headline: Ursuline defeats Nolan Catholic in final.

There are signs every year that Nolan Catholic is closing the gap.

Fitzgerald said TAPPS state titles once became so routine for Ursuline that the players did not celebrate victories. Now, they do, he added.

In the past five seasons, Nolan has snagged a regular-season victory every now and then. Recently, Nolan won a match and tied the other in the regular season, only to lose the playoff final. This year, however, was the first major breakthrough for the Vikings in this rivalry that often pits elite club teammates from the Dallas Texans and the Sting against each other.

Through 12 matches, Nolan has outscored its district foes 59-2. The team is riding an eight-match shutout streak. Senior Morgan Ullman, another of the four-year starters, leads the Vikings with 11 goals and has four assists. Senior Sarah Williamson has seven goals and four assists. Junior Maygan Ditucci has five goals and seven assists. The fourth four-year varsity starter is Maura Kolkmeyer, a defender.

Fitzgerald said a key development in this year's team has been a smaller varsity roster.

"We have 17 players, not the 25 to 28 we usually have," he said. "The chemistry is better. The maturity is better."

On Nov. 12, Ditucci and Baum scored as Nolan Catholic edged Ursuline 2-1. Four weeks later, on Dec. 10, Ditucci netted the lone goal in Nolan's 1-0 victory in the rematch at Dallas Jesuit, which serves as Ursuline's home field. According to Fitzgerald, it marks the first time Nolan has ever won on the Bears' home pitch.

"Each year we are getting closer and closer [to Ursuline]," Heimann said. "Hopefully it's coming true this year. [Even with the two wins this year], none of us feel the job is done until it's done at the state championship."

"We could go undefeated and lose to Ursuline in the state final and it would be a wasted year," Fitzgerald said, showing the emphasis placed on that one meeting. "These seniors want to leave their stamp on this program.

"All we want is one title, and with one will come others."

Sheldon Shealer covers high school sports for ESPN RISE. He can be reached at sheldon.shealer@espn.com