In the aftermath of Owen J. Roberts’ 5-1 Pioneer Athletic Conference girls soccer semifinal win over Phoenixville, Wildcats head coach Joe Margusity was told by a reporter, ‘Welcome back.’
It was applicable, yet hard to imagine in years gone by the Owen J. Roberts girls soccer team would ever need a reintroduction to the championship game of the Pioneer Athletic Conference.
Its opponent in Thursday’s final (5 p.m. at Owen J. Roberts’ Wildcat Stadium) needs no introduction. Since 2013, Spring-Ford has taken over as the league’s elite team, knocking OJR from its place as a sure thing to make the PAC Final Four.
The undefeated Rams (18-0-1) have won two of the past three league titles, making the final all three years. Spring-Ford went on to reach the PIAA Class AAA championships all three years, with appearances in the final (2013), semifinals (2014) and quarterfinals (2015) and has the look of a team that can make it a fourth straight this season.
Owen J. Roberts (12-6-1), which has won three PAC titles since the Final Four format began in 2006 and made the last of its now seven final appearances in 2012, has grown greatly since starting seven freshmen two years ago. With that group, led by forward Mahogany Willis and defender Kylie Cahill, now juniors, the Wildcats have shown the quality to be back competing for championships.
Spring-Ford swept the season series between the finalists: on Sept. 15, the Rams won 3-2 with freshman Elle Kershner scoring the game-winner; on Oct. 13, Spring-Ford got two goals from KK O’Donnell and two assists from Kelly Franz in a 3-0 blanking of the Wildcats.
Owen J. Roberts facts
• OJR, which finished second in the Liberty (7-2-1), bounced back from its most recent defeat to Spring-Ford with the 5-1 win over Frontier champion Phoenixville by getting a hat trick from Willis and goals from Danika Swech and Mia Baumgarten.
• With Willis on the left and Baumgarten central, the pair lead the line for the Wildcats. In the midfield, junior Caroline Thompson holds down the defensive midfield spot – a key role in OJR’s system – and is joined by Swech, Julia Dalton and Kilee McCloud. On defense, Cahill is a dominant center back paired with sophomore Simone Karustis, outside backs Kenzie Milne and Kali Pupo and freshman goalkeeper Sophia Bono.
• The Wildcats are No. 21 in the latest District 1-AAAA power rankings.
•Liberty Division champion Spring-Ford hasn’t missed a beat even after the graduation of former star players Laura Suero (Penn State), Taylor Newhart (La Salle) and Gabrielle Vagnozzi (St. Joseph’s). In fact, the sum of the parts may be even greater with an unbeaten record that features 18 wins and just one draw (0-0 vs. Boyertown on Oct. 11). That minor blip was offset by the shutout of OJR and a 2-0 victory over District 3 powerhouse Cumberland Valley, the team that ousted them from states in 2015, in their following two games.
•Head coach Tim Leyland’s lineup is as deep as there’s been in recent PAC memory. The attacking and midfield personnel is almost interchangable. Gabby Kane leads from central midfield while scoring threat comes from O’Donnell, Alayna Gairo, Jules Alessandroni, Franz, Kershner, Laura Fazzini and top scorer Mack Mitchell (12 goals). On defense, center back Libby Andrews and outside backs Missy Moore and Molly McHarg are fixtures in front of keeper Amanda Byrd.
• Spring-Ford is No. 6 in the most recent District 1-AAAA power rankings, one of only two undefeated teams (No. 3 Conestoga) in the district.
Spring-Ford’s versatility makes it unpredictable with where the goals will come from on a given day. What is predictable is a disciplined, possession-based approach. OJR primarily looks to Willis to create down the left side. She had her way on Tuesday but will have a tougher assignment with Moore (All-Area first team in 2015) likely marking her. The Wildcats need an effective Plan B to match the Rams’ scoring ability and must have Thompson and Swech asserting themselves in the midfield to not allow the Rams to get comfortable.
Spring-Ford simply has too many ways to get it done. The Rams take their third PAC title in the past four years … Spring-Ford 3, Owen J. Roberts 1.