BUCKTOWN >> The all-underclass lineup of the Owen J. Roberts girls soccer team proved it was ready for prime time in Thursday night’s Pioneer Athletic Conference championship.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the Spring-Ford defense displayed the heart of a champion.
In an intriguing matchup of the league’s present and future, in which the final score was as deceptive as a Cristiano Ronaldo knuckleball free kick, the Rams held on for a 2-0 victory at OJR’s Henry J. Bernat Field to bring home their third PAC title in the past four seasons.
KK O’Donnell connected for a first-half goal and the Rams (19-0-1) withstood a barrage of corners and shots to notch their 14th clean sheet of the season, with Alayna Gairo delivering the coup de grace with a score in the closing seconds.
The gleeful postgame scene on the Rams side was in stark contrast to last season, when Spring-Ford’s hopes of a three-peat were dashed in a 1-0 title-game loss to Boyertown.
“Last year was the worst feeling ever; it was awful,” said O’Donnell, a junior midfielder. “Right before the game started tonight, I said, ‘Let’s remember how it felt last year and how devastated we were. Let’s get it (the title) back this year.’”
The fact that they did it without their ‘A’ game while also surviving an inspired performance from the Wildcats (12-7-1) says a lot about the makeup of coach Tim Leyland’s squad.
“We all get along so well, and the fact that we get along has helped us play better as a team,” said junior back Molly McHarg. “We play connected and we play with each other. It’s not just one person working; everyone is working.”
That collective effort was on display in both previous meetings (3-2 last month and 3-0 last week), and it continued in the final as McHarg, Missy Moore, Libby Andrews, Claire Sites and Laura Fazzini spearheaded a defense that also saw senior keeper Amanda Byrd come up big with five saves.
Despite having advantages of 8-6 in shots and 9-2 corners while getting good looks from star forward Mahogany Willis, the Wildcats couldn’t cash in.
“The key was withstanding their pressure,” Leyland said. “They absolutely attacked us with a purpose. Owen J. Roberts played phenomenal tonight and we held on by the skin of our teeth. My hat’s off to them. They probably deserved to get three or four, but we just withstood the pressure.”
Meanwhile, Spring-Ford countered and hit paydirt off one of the Wildcats’ few mistakes.
Junior midfielder Gabby Kane made a charge from midfield and threaded a pretty diagonal feed down the left side to O’Donnell, who coyly slipped free and gained the edge before depositing a left-footer into the back of the net in the 12th minute.
“That’s Spring-Ford’s m.o.,” lamented longtime OJR coach Joe Margusity. “It’s like Chris Evert in the old tennis days. You make one mistake and they punish you. And they punished us for one lapse.”
The Rams also persevered despite the seemingly match-long offensive forays of the ‘Cats, in particular Willis.
Byrd turned away Julia Dalton from tantalizingly close range a little more than three minutes before intermission. Then, four minutes into the second half, Willis gained control in the box and sent a bullet that appeared goal-bound before a diving Byrd got a piece of it for the save of the night.
Spring-Ford freshman Elle Kershner hit the post with inside 29 minutes remaining, and the Rams grimly held on until the Wildcats were forced to desperately push forward – resulting in Gairo finishing Kershner’s cross in the final minute of play.
“Our motto is, if we play like we know how to play and work hard for each other, when the time comes we’re going to get what we deserve,” Moore said. “We just keep working for each other and good things come out of it.”
McHarg had to work hard virtually all 80 minutes to contain Willis, who was coming off a hat trick in Tuesday’s 5-1 semifinal victory over Phoenixville.
“She’s definitely a skilled, technical player and has a lot of speed up top,” McHarg said. “I was told to get on her and just be aggressive and work on her.”
“Molly did a nice job head-up on Mahogany,” said Leyland, “and Amanda made some really good saves.”
The Rams also showcased plenty of quality depth to complement a skilled attack that Moore felt was long on uncanny determination and positive chemistry.
“It came down to our desire to win and work with each other,” Moore said. “We know how to pick each other up, and our bond plus our willingness to work is what makes us succeed. Losing in the final last year motivated us. We felt we let it slip away, and we were determined not to let that happen again.”
It didn’t, despite a valiant effort from the tough-luck Wildcats.
“With a young team, sometimes you have to lose to learn how to win,” Margusity said. “But like I said, I think we deserved a better fate tonight.”
Notes >> Spring-Ford, ranked sixth in the latest District 1-AAAA rankings, opens districts next week, as does 21st-ranked Owen J. Roberts. … Wildcats freshman keeper Sophia Bono notched two saves.
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