Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--University Lab's Kate McKowen, left, celebrates the second of her two goals against Pope John Paul II's Alexis Molero in U-High's 3-1 victory in the Division III State championship gameThursday at Tad Gormley Stadium in New Orleans.

University Lab’s Kate McKowen doesn’t remember much of Thursday night’s girls Division III soccer state championship. She was so nervous, the most meaningful match of her high school career felt like an 80-minute blur.

At least she’ll have some hardware to help jog her memory.

McKowen took home MVP honors behind a pair of goals that launched second-seeded U-High to a 3-1 win over defending champion Pope John Paul II for the school’s first state title in the sport since 1998.

The Jaguars may have been the more experienced team entering the game, but it was U-High who found their pacing early.

McKowen — a sophomore midfielder who had missed the previous two weeks with a concussion — opened up scoring in the 10th minute when she took a pass from senior Alyssa Strupp deep in PJP territory. She said she just wanted to make contact with the ball, and next thing she knew, she was being swarmed by her teammates as the Cubs took the lead.

“Everything that we worked for and everything we pushed for and all the hard practice, it actually paid off,” McKowen said straining to catch her breath. “It was just kind of a throw-in and I just got a touch on it.”

Earlier in the week, U-High coach Melissa Ramsey said the Cubs were going to stick with the same game plan that got them to their first title-game appearance in almost two decades, and that’s exactly what they did.

U-High attacked the PJP defense with a barrage of long balls from the opening whistle, setting up McKowen and senior Jessica Shelby for several dangerous attempts. But for the most part, Jaguars goalkeeper Alexis Molero deflected the shots.

The Cubs outshot PJP 7-0 in the first half, including 5-0 in shots on goal. They also dominated play with about 70 percent of the possession.

PJP closed the gap in the second half after making several halftime adjustments, namely a more aggressive attack as they had the wind to their backs.

The Jaguars finally lit up the scoreboard in the 57th minute as senior forward Christina Cutura broke through the U-High defense on a long ball from her little sister Marlena Cutura.

The elder Cutura slipped past the unsuspecting back line to set up a one-on-one against Cubs goalkeeper Elizabeth Bankhead where she chipped the junior keeper just before a collision and give PJP the equalizer.

Ramsey said staying composed after what was only the second goal Bankhead had allowed since Dec. 6 and only the second score any Division III team scored on the Cubs all season was an important part of the win.

The Cubs apparently responded well as they kept the Jaguars to only one more shot the rest of the game.

“That one extra touch made a big difference,” Christina Cutura said. “I think that’s what happened to us. They made us hold on to the ball just a second too long for us to be able to do much of anything.”

With 14 minutes left to play, the Cubs turned to another sophomore in midfielder Mary Nader to give them the lead.

Nader took the ball off a Kirby Miller pass where she made a devastating move to the outside to give her a breakaway run at the goal, slotting the shot to the right of Molero for the game-winning score.

“I didn’t think I would get very far, but they weren’t stepping to me, so I was just going to keep going until they stepped and they never did,” Nader said.

McKowen sealed the win and her MVP just three minutes later when she broke free for an easy one-on-one goal to give the game it’s final 3-1 score.

The Cubs finished with 13 shots to PJP’s four.

Division III boys

ST. LOUIS 1, NORTHLAKE CHRISTIAN 1 (St. Louis wins on penalty kicks): St. Louis goaltender Conner Cutrera stopped three Northlake Christian penalty kicks to secure a win for the top-seeded Saints in the Division III boys title game Thursday night.

The game was tied at 1 going into penalty kicks.

After Northlake Christian and St. Louis scored on their opening penalty kicks, Cutrera stopped three consecutive Wolverine shots en route to the victory.