Tredyffrin >> The follow-up is often the hardest part.
For the Conestoga girls soccer team during Saturday’s District 1-AAAA quarterfinal against Spring-Ford, the follow-up was the best part.
Junior defender Hannah Morgan was going to do her part to get on the end of senior Madie French’s corner kick five minutes into the second half of a scoreless game. After that, nothing was a given.
“Any corner we get, with Hannah in the box, she’s going to get on the end of it and be dangerous. She’s done a good job all season getting to the ball and getting the initial touch but we haven’t always had the people following in.”
Freshman Caitlin Donovan provided the missing piece as she scored the rebound of Morgan’s shot that hit the near-side post to send Conestoga well on its way to a 2-0 victory over Spring-Ford to claim a berth into the PIAA Championships and advance to the District 1-AAAA semifinals.
Junior midfielder Ariel Loevy poached on a defensive miscommunication by the Rams with under 14 minutes remaining to put the final touches on a comprehensive fourth-seeded Pioneers’ performance that handed No. 5 Spring-Ford its first loss of the season (20-1-1).
Not a bad follow-up to last year’s five-win season for the Pioneers.
Conestoga moves on to the district’s final four to face top seed Neshaminy – a 1-0 winner over Downingtown West Saturday – on Wednesday at Neshaminy.
Spring-Ford enters playbacks for the district’s fifth and final place in states – it will host No. 9 Downingtown West on Wednesday – a road the Rams know quite well. Spring-Ford traversed that path in 2013 and 2014 to reach states.
“Unfortunately we know it all too well,” Rams head coach Tim Leyland said. “Last year was the first year we got through the ‘easy way’ where we advanced to the semis; this year will be a little tougher. Now you’re in a four-team tournament for one spot. That puts a lot of pressure on you honestly because your season is on the line every game you play.”
On Saturday, the pressure came vigorously from the Pioneers (15-1-4), a program that is returning to district prominence under first-year head coach Ben Wilson, who last year guided the Episcopal Academy girls’ team to an Inter-Ac title.
“We only won five games last year so it’s a huge turnaround. It’s overwhelming,” Morgan said. “Everyone was just so disappointed with last year that we really wanted to turn around so everyone is working hard at practice, putting in the time and wants to get better. Our mindsets have changed.”
The ball pressure of Stoga’s back four (Morgan, Jordan Roe, Calista Courtney and Dana Cicchitti) and midfield (Ceara Sweeney, Rachel DiRico and Caitlyn Ellerbeck) left Spring-Ford short of the time of the ball it craves. So much so, it seemed like a Pioneer player blocked almost every Rams’ pass for stretches of the game.
“They closed down everything, they pressured everything and won a lot of balls in the midfield. I thought they did a great job,” Leyland said. “There’s a reason they’re a one-loss team.
“I don’t know what it was, we were just a little off. We weren’t our normal selves. We didn’t have any juice. Our communication and passing were off. But that’s to their credit because they forced us to be off. We didn’t do it to ourselves, they forced us to be that way. They were very good and they deserve all the credit.”
Conestoga was nearly on top early when Donovan was played in down the right side. Her lofted shot grazed the crossbar and was eventually cleared by Juliana Alessandroni. Stoga’s other best chance of the first half was Morgan carrying the ball from the back line through the midfield and freeing Loevy with a through ball. Loevy’s shot from the right was saved by SF keeper Amanda Byrd (three saves), but could have been a penalty kick if Loevy had gone to ground on Libby Andrews’ tackle on the edge of the 18-yard box.
Conestoga, which led in shots on goal 4-2 and goal attempts 8-6, remained the brighter team into the second half after a 0-0 first half. They were rewarded after a jailbreak counterattack following a Spring-Ford corner kick that was thwarted by Molly McHarg for a Conestoga corner. French sent the corner toward Morgan, whose rising right-footed effort struck the point where the right post and crossbar meet. But it fell to Donovan, who chested it down and nailed it across goal for the 1-0 lead at the 34:28 mark.
“Hannah hit it off the crossbar and I saw the loose ball and I just went for it,” Donovan said.
“I wanted it! I really wanted it really bad,” Morgan said, “but I was glad Caitlin was there to put it in.”
Spring-Ford finally mustered a couple chances on a KK O’Donnell header of Claire Sites’ free kick and Alessandroni playing a short cross to Kelly Franz but Stoga keeper Colleen Baldwin (two saves) closed the chance down quickly.
Once Loevy got her reward with 13:28 to play for the 2-0 lead, Conestoga could see its future.
“That little edge of ruthlessness is what separates really good teams from each other, just having that last little drive in there to score,” coach Wilson said.
Wilson insists he didn’t have to reshape too much of the past in the process.
“To be honest, I don’t think I did anything to reinvent the wheel, I just saw the ability of the players we had here,” he said.
Conversely, Spring-Ford’s future is a ‘mystery.’ Not that they haven’t been there before.
“We have a saying with the team, it’s corny but, ‘Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.’ We use it all the time and we’re going to have to use it this week as we rejuvenate,” Leyland said. “Sometimes taking a loss, we don’t want to take a loss this time of year, but maybe it will reenergize and refocus us.”