Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--Pope John Paul II's Rachel Edwards deflects the shot of Country Day's Lucy Butterbaugh in a Division III quarterfinal playoff game earlier this month.

Most winning teams can point to one seminal moment in a season that helped steer the program toward success.

For the Pope John Paul II girls soccer team, that moment came in a loss to eventual District 7 champion Northlake Christian. As the Wolverines celebrated on the Jaguars’ home field (a win that helped them clinch the top seed in the Division III playoffs,) the PJP players couldn’t help but feel the season was getting away from them.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. After all, a year earlier, the Jaguars were the state’s top seed, and they rode that ranking to a Division III state title.

But rather than hang their heads, the Pope John Paul II girls used the loss as a momentum-builder. They earned the eighth seed in the postseason, and four impressive victories later, are once again playing for a state title.

This year’s championship opponent is second-seeded University Lab of Baton Rouge. The Cubs boast a 22-1-3 record and have a size advantage over the Jaguars, PJP II coach J.B. Mahoney said.

Still, the Jaguars (after defeating their four playoff opponents by a total of 19-1) believe they can repeat as state champions when the game is held at 5 p.m. Thursday at Tad Gormley Stadium in New Orleans City Park. That’s because after a shaky start to the 2014-15 season, the Jaguars (14-4-5) are as hot as any team in the state.

“In the beginning of the year, we really struggled a lot,” junior defender Rachel Edwards said. “We tied some matches, lost a few. But we found ourselves. Everything started working.”

The players, as well as Mahoney, credited the return to the attack-minded style that helped win the 2014 championship. But with last year’s leading scorer Jessica Mahoney (the coach’s daughter) lost to graduation, it took some time for the Jaguars to regain that identity this season.

The offense starts with sisters Marlena and Christian Cutera who have been strong most of the season. Complimented by steady help at midfield and on the wings, the Jaguars had little problem scoring in the last few games of the season. The stingy defense, led by Edwards and goalie Alexis Molero, is the spark that kept Pope John Paul II in earlier games when the offense struggled.

“I think a lot of people thought we couldn’t repeat because we lost Jessica,” junior Peyton Corwin said. “It’s been a roller- coaster season, but I think we can do it again, if we keep playing the way we are now.”

J.B. Mahoney said his team has regained its mental edge.

“Last year, as a one seed, we thought we could win every game we played,” he said. “This year, we had a lot of really tough matches throughout the year. Once we got to the playoffs, that experience really paid off. … We had a target on our chests as the defending state champs. But you don’t have to win district to win state. Our whole mentality changed when we got the playoffs. All of a sudden, we had to defend that state title.”

As for the this year’s championship?

“It should be a good match,” Mahoney said. “I think we’ll get our chances. They only have one loss … and they are bigger than us, especially at midfield. So, we’ll keep an eye on it, but we’re not going to change anything. We’ll be attacked-minded. If we defend well on set pieces and on corners, we should be OK.”

Sophomore Claire Cross agreed.

“We know they’re a good team, and it should be a good match,” she said. “But we were there last year. We know what to expect. That definitely should help us.”