PHILADELPHIA >> La Salle goalkeeper Brett Werner has a nickname given to him by his teammates for a very specific thing Werner does at practice.
That’s because “Odell,” so named for New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr, loves to try and make one-handed circus catches of soccer balls on corners and free kicks, just to test the limits of his athletic ability. Imposing at 6-foot-5, Werner is a presence in goal.
Saturday evening, he was a huge reason why the Explorers won their first Philadelphia Catholic League boys soccer title since 2012 in a thrilling 2-1 win over defending champion Roman Catholic.
“From when we first played them, we knew they had all the ability, all the tools to put the pressure on us,” Werner, a junior, said. “But we came together as a team, which is what we said at halftime, we have to come together, we have to work together and we have to relieve the pressure. We put two up in the first half and stuck it out.”
Stuck it out is a great way to describe how La Salle finished the game. Roman was tremendous after halftime and even until the last whistle was applying tons of pressure on Werner and his defenders with corner kicks and long throw ins.
Only once, with 14:03 left in the game, did Roman beat the big man. Matthew Flanagan headed in a corner kick by left back Nate Lindner to cut the lead in half and possibly did up some bad memories for the Explorers. It was in last year’s semifinals that Roman ousted La Salle on a goal off a corner with 45 seconds left.
“The corner I think gave them some flashbacks,” La Salle coach Tom McCaffrey said. “But they battled through it and got the job done. That speaks to the senior leadership. Everybody on this team has some kind of a leadership role and they all embrace it in their own way and it showed tonight with their composure under pressure.”
La Salle opened the game with all the energy of a car chase scene in a blockbuster movie. The Explorers were flying up the field and even had Roman on its heels a little bit before shocking the Cahilites with two goals in a 1:07 span.
Explorers celebrate their trophy pic.twitter.com/2WxuUsDpP4
— Andrew Robinson (@ADRobinson3) October 29, 2016
The first came after Mike D’Angelo flicked on a free kick from center back James Natale, it took a bounce and went into the net with 33:49 left in the first half. Soon after, La Salle’s dynamic winger Spencer Patton broke free down the left side and sent a wonderful cross into the box.
“We were the first senior class that could have not won a championship in our four years in a long time, so we knew we needed to work hard and we were all over them at the beginning,” senior forward Zach Hogan said. “We were outworking them on our own set pieces offensively, that’s where we created most of our chances and that’s usually what we do.”
It wasn’t exactly a set piece, but Hogan, or at least his abdomen, was in the right place at the right time as Patton’s cross touched down and a Roman defender tried to clear it. The ball got about two feet, where it crashed into Hogan’s stomach and shot back into the net for the 2-0 lead with 32:42 left.
“They all count the same, I’ll take it,” Hogan said. “The kid had his back to me, turned to clear it and I was about a foot behind him and it just hit me in the stomach.
“It was an interesting goal.”
It was also the game-winning goal.
Roman got itself off its heels and back into attack mode soon after and started to knock on the door. Unfortunately for the Cahilities, the butler was a big dude and wouldn’t let just anyone come in. Werner had a huge save with about 5:24 left in the first half, palming an absolute screamer of a shot by Roman over the bar.
“It’s enormous, he’s the best keeper in the league and he played like it tonight,” Roman coach Ray DeStephanis said. “It doesn’t come easy against someone like that. We also had a chance early in the second chance where everyone jumped, we thought the goalie tipped it but the guy on the post saved it.”
“I saw an opportunity to make or break the game,” Werner said. “If I let that go in, the game goes another way but if I save it, then we win.”
Werner had another massive save with 35:45 left in the second half when he got down to the ground to stuff a well-taken header by Aidan Meissler on the goal line that seemed destined for the net. No matter how Roman was coming at him, Werner kept answering the call.
“I wouldn’t say worried, we were anxious to defend it,” Werner said. “We knew it was coming, it’s the PCL final, it’s high school soccer. It’s all free kicks and corner kicks, that’s how we lost last year and how we won this year. We defended them well, except for the one, but miscommunications are a part of soccer. We defended well, we stuck it out and we won.”
Patton, who is committed to play at Virginia, was still in a bit of awe at the accomplishment after the match. He said the two goals happened so fast and that entire game was a blur with the way Roman was applying pressure and trying so hard to equalize.
“We knew they were going to come out hard, want to win, want to keep their championship and keep the saga going but we had something else in mind,” Patton said. “We hadn’t won one in four years and we didn’t want that to continue.”
The title run capped a PCL campaign that saw the Explorers go unbeaten, with just two draws the only league results that weren’t victories.
“It’s pretty crazy,” Patton said. “I never thought at the beginning of the season in August during preseason that we would be able to do this. It’s one of those things where you’re going to come back years later and say I was part of the first team to go undefeated in PCL and it feels really good to bring one back to La Salle.”
The loss ends a run of success for Roman’s senior class that saw them reach four PCL semifinals and three straight title games.
“Once we settled in after the two goals seven minutes in, we played fine,” DeStephanis said. “We knocked the ball around fine.
“We went to a 3-4-3 at halftime knowing we would have the wind and they would sit back. At one point, probably with about 15 minutes left, we were more of a 3-3-4 with four forwards. We wanted to get the ball wide and everything was coming down our right, we were getting the throws, getting the corners, things just didn’t fall our way.”
McCaffrey said he’s seen a lot of growth from his keeper in the last two years, both mentally and physically, into a player who can control himself and is comfortable with his body.
“He’s an incredible player and if I had to pick a kid on this team to build around, it would be Brett,” Hogan said. “He’s the best goalie in the league by far and without him, we wouldn’t be here right now.”
“He messes around with that stuff because he’s that athletic,” McCaffrey said. “It shows in his basketball career with what he can do on a basketball court and it’s an unbelievable blessing to have him back there.”
Top Photo: The La Salle boys soccer team celebrates with the Philadelphia Catholic League championship trophy after defeating Roman Catholic 2-1 in the league final on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016. (Andrew Robinson/Digital First Media)