HOLMDEL - First-year St. Rose coach Zach Savacool did not want to have to sit on a one-goal lead for the vast majority of Thursday's South Jersey Non-Public B championship game but he knew he had a team that could handle the task.

He also had a player who, after giving the Purple Roses the lead with her offense, could put her skills to work closing the game out on the defensive end.

Senior Julianne Leskauskas scored her 29th goal of the season on a picturesque strike eight minutes into the match and played the final 10-plus minutes at center back to help lead the Purple Roses - the No. 3 seed in the section - to a 1-0 win over No. 12 Trinity Hall that sends St. Rose to its first Non-Public B title game in five years.

The Purple Roses will go for their first overall championship since 2010 Sunday at 10 a.m., when they take on Morristown-Beard in the Non-Public B final at Kean University.

Photo by Matt Manley.
Photo by Matt Manley.

"I don't think St. Rose has seen a team like this since 2010," Leskauskas said referring to the last Purple Roses team to win an overall group title. "It's just an unbelievable feeling because St. Rose, for the past however many years, has been the underdog. Nobody expected us to do much - we had been blown out - and we just came out with fire this year."

To win the championship, St. Rose (15-2-1) had to get by an opponent it faced a little more than two weeks ago and defeated, 2-0, despite a slow offensive start.

Since that meeting, the Monarchs only gained confidence thanks to a postseason run that included the program's first ever state tournament win and later featured an upset of top-seeded Wardlaw-Hartridge to earn a spot in the sectional final.

"The last time we played them was not our best game," Leskauskas said. "We were missing five players and we just didn't come out the way we should have. Knowing we had all our players and knowing there was so much on the line, these girls played amazing under pressure. We play phenomenal under pressure, so knowing that, I don't think there were too many nerves coming into the game. Just the confidence you've got to have."

If Trinity Hall (8-9-2) had designs of keeping St. Rose off the board early and breaking its collective heart late, Leskauskas spoiled those plans rather quickly. The senior forward tracked a loose ball in the Monarchs end, dribbled by a defender and as the next one approached, she fired a left-footed shot on the run. The strike curled away from Trinity Hall goalkeeper Colleen Cusat but stayed inside the far left post, settling in the side netting for the game's lone goal.

"I saw the ball was free and if there is a free ball inside the box, there is no way I'm not going for it," Leskauskas said. "It's one of those plays where it's a split-second chance and you have to make the decision whether to put the ball in the back of the net or pass it. I saw a slight opening and I decided to rip it and it was an incredible feeling to watch it go in the net."

St. Rose missed on a handful of chances over the remainder of the game and although Trinity Hall penetrated the back line on several occasions, the Monarchs never created that one opportunity dangerous enough to turn into the equalizer.

Still, St. Rose entered the final minutes clinging to a one-goal lead and Savacool summoned his top scorer and senior leader to take over the heart of the defense and bring home the championship.

"We were creating the opportunities but they weren't falling," Leskauskas said. "Basically, we had to park the bus and it was more of a defensive game going into the second half. When we moved me back, it was the last ten minutes and the thinking was just get the ball the heck away from our net and don't let them get anywhere near it."

Tuesday marked the fourth straight shutout of the tournament for the St. Rose defense and goalkeeper Katherine McLaughlin, as well as the sixth clean sheet in the last seven games.

"We had some trouble conceding goals in the beginning of the year," Savacool said. "Since the Marlboro (loss) in the Shore Conference Tournament, we're up to eight games where we've only conceded twice. So the defense is just doing a great job in the back not conceding goals and that's a credit to Kate McLaughlin, Celia Tave, Abigael Gammond, Lauren (Hickey) and Jenna DeFazio - who we brought up from the reserve team and is doing an absolutely great job at outside back."

With St. Rose pulling out the win, Trinity Hall saw its Cinderella run come to an end but this could only be the beginning for a program with a promising foundation in just its fourth year of existence. Head coach Ken Santos - also the athletic director - is a successful head coach who won Shore Conference and state titles as the head coach of the Red Bank Catholic girls program before stepping down after the 2012 season.

The all-girls school also brought a energetic student section to nearby Holmdel High School that not only cheered on the Monarchs during the 80 minutes of play but also gave the team a rousing ovation after the game ended.

"I was pretty sure we would see (Trinity Hall) again, especially after seeing them the first time we played them," Savacool said. "They are so well-coached. They move the ball around extremely well, they are extraordinarily well-organized in the back - it was extremely hard for us to break them down. So all credit to them - they definitely improved as the year has gone on and are definitely an up-and-coming program."

The two programs seem destined to build a rivalry in the coming years but for the moment, St. Rose proved it is the team ready to challenge for a state title and leave its legacy within its own program and in the Shore Conference.

"We're not done yet," Leskauskas said. "This was a big step for us, but coming out on Sunday, it's going to be another emotional game. I know we can pull this out. There's no reason we can't if we play like we can."


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