LOWER GWYNEDD >> Mary Claire Casey is one of Gwynedd Mercy Academy soccer’s most sure-footed and sound defenders.
But she’s also an all-around standout athlete and for a defender, possesses some quality skills on the ball. With her Monarchs having some trouble breaking through a tough and tenacious Upper Moreland side Friday afternoon, Casey moved from defender to the position she’s so often responsible for stopping, forward.
The move paid off in the second half when the senior scored two goals to lead GMA to a 3-0 win over the Golden Bears in the District 1 Class AA girls soccer first round.
“This has been happening lately where he’s putting me in different positions where I’m trying to get in behind the defense,” Casey said. “My speed is helping me beat them and my players are playing me the right balls so I can just go in and finish.”
In a game that was originally scheduled for Wednesday, the Monarchs quickly found that Upper Moreland was not going to be just satisfied with making its first playoff appearance in 15 years. While UM wasn’t able to put much pressure on offensively, its back line and keeper Kim Benge were resolute.
Benge made 12 saves, several of them from point-blank range and kept GMA without a goal for 43 minutes. It was a good finale to a young Bears team that fought tooth and nail in every game and got rewarded with a playoff bid.
Thanks to their junior shot-stopper, they made it a performance to be proud of.
“I usually just react, though sometimes I do get to think about it before they shoot,” Benge said. “But reacting is better because you usually get the better saves.”
Monarchs coach Steve Whitby was complimentary of Upper Moreland’s tenacity, but he also noticed the Bears weren’t putting a lot of heat on his defense. Thus, the coach who normally prefers not to tinker with his back line started to shift some things around.
Chief among the moves was first flipping Casey with left winger Erica DeCandido, DeCandido, another of GMA’s versatile athletes, can fill in just about any position, so the back like was going to be fine.
“We were having trouble finishing and with our quality of our last touch,” Whitby said. “Mary’s got a good quality with her feet and so I knew putting her and Maggie (Cameron) up there, with the chemistry they have, was going to result in something.”
Then, Casey went up top and almost immediately, the chances started coming for her. She just wasn’t putting them away.
The senior defender-turned-striker had a couple of shots denied by Benge and also pushed one tantalizingly wide of frame late in the first half. Going into the break, she was doing everything to not let the misses get to her.
“I was really frustrated going into halftime because I kept doing the same exact thing,” Casey said. “Once I got more relaxed in the second half, I was able to go wide and beat the goalie.”
Finally, Casey got the right ball and cashed in with 36:15 left in regulation. Cameron, as she so often does, played a perfect through ball and Casey’s speed carried her past two defenders to beat Benge for a goal.
With weight lifted firmly off shoulders, Casey kept looking while a few of her teammates got in the mix as well. Benge had a remarkable sliding save on Rachel Koller, then another close-range denial a few moments later.
The junior keeper was adamant it was just reflexes and the help of her defenders that kept her in the game.
“I knew they were going to hit low and were a good shooting team, so I wanted to dive and be sure I could get everywhere in the box and my angles were cut down,” Benge said. “I commend my back line because they work very hard for me.”
Koller set up GMA’s second goal with a smart ball up to Casey who again slipped in behind the defense and slotted home her second of the game with 22:01 left. While the first and second goals came about 14 minutes apart, the third strike tailed the second by about seven minutes.
Shea Tomlinson won the ball deep in Upper Moreland’s end, got a turn in and was able to chip over the keeper for the final tally. GMA received a spirited performance from its supporting players and especially the bench, something Casey said is a luxury the Monarchs enjoy.
“It’s not only awesome, but it gives us a chance to mend a little bit,” Whitby said. “I’m not a big fan of subbing numbers en masse, but we got not only swing players from JV, but our entire bench in and I was proud of them.”
Benge had a few more tricks left, including a late double-save on Koller again from close range.
“Sometimes I don’t even know what happens,” Benge said. “I just make the saves.”
GMA advances to next week’s semifinals and Casey said the one thing she’d like to see is the team making the most of its early chances and finishing a few more goals. Whitby was glad to see his girls regain their ability to sustain possession against Uppper Moreland and hopes that continues on.
The Bears go home, but the do so with a team that loses just two seniors and carrying a lot of pride and confidence into next year.
“I am unbelievably proud of my team,” UM coach Lisa Benvenuto said. “The girls have had a season like this game. They work hard for everything and they continue to show up and play whomever is on the other side of the pitch.
“We are so fortunate to be from Upper Moreland and have a supportive athletic department. The high school and really the community has been behind these girls.”
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