MANILA, Philippines -- Jessika Cowart made sure that she would not waste a second opportunity to score a maiden goal for her country.
The defender opened the scoring in the gold medal match between the Philippines and Thailand in the 2022 AFF Women's Championship, thumping in a header off a corner kick by captain Tahnai Annis in the eighth minute.
It made for a dream start for the Filipinas, who went on to beat Thailand, 3-0, and lift their first-ever major trophy in an international competition. For the 22-year-old Cowart, it also capped a sensational first tournament with the Filipinas.
"It was enough just to be able to play in front of the home fans. To finally make it back to the home land, it's my first time here ever, so just that was special for me. But to be able to win the whole thing and give back to the country that gives so much to us, I mean, what a feeling," said Cowart.
Scoring the first goal allowed Cowart to heave a sigh of relief, as it gave her a measure of redemption for missing an opportunity against the same team in the group phase. Cowart had a chance to put the Filipinas ahead when they played Thailand last Tuesday, but her close-range strike was blocked by Chotmanee Thongmongkol.
Given another opportunity -- and this time during the final -- Cowart made no mistake. Her header sailed past Thongmongkol and sent the crowd at the Rizal Memorial Stadium into pandemonium as the Filipinas snatched the momentum.
"To be able to finally put one away, it was like a weight off my shoulders. I feel like I was just like, it was a surreal feeling. I still don't believe I did it," said Cowart, who traces her roots to the Philippines through her mother.
"It hasn't been processed yet. But I mean, a huge weight off my shoulders. And, you know, to get that goal so quick, I think it really gave us confidence and a boost to just push to the next 83 minutes of the game and get even more goals," she added.
Katrina Guillou doubled the Philippines' lead in the 20th minute, and Sarina Bolden put the finishing touches on the win in the 89th. In between the goals, Cowart and veteran defender Hali Long marshalled a defense that held Thailand -- a regional powerhouse -- to only four shots on target over 90 minutes.
It was the second straight clean sheet for the Filipinas, after a 4-0 demolition of Vietnam in the semifinal that propelled them to the gold medal match.
"Top, top compliments to Vietnam and Thailand. They had incredible players and amazing soccer philosophy, and they're incredibly hard teams to play against," said Cowart. "But I think our goal is not only to score a lot, but to also not give up any goals. And so that's a big thing for us, to be able to defend our goal, defend our home."
"To be able to put up two clean sheets in high level games like that, I mean, from the front line to the 'keeper, we just put our bodies on the line every game and that's kind of just how we are as a team," she added.
"We work hard for each other, and I mean, very blessed and lucky to come up with two clean sheets in games like that. But that's kind of us. That's what we work for."