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Higgins’ heads-up goal in double OT lifts Penncrest

MIDDLETOWN >> With a couple of concussions in her past, Penncrest’s Tara Higgins tries to limit how much she heads the ball. A fleet-of-foot winger, she usually does her best work on the turf anyway.

But as the clock ticked into the final minute of the second-overtime session Wednesday, the junior wasn’t thinking about that.

“I just saw the ball coming in,” Higgins said. “I got myself in position, I tried to stay onside. I just got my head on it. … You’ve just got to do it. You just have to put the game before anything else, and that’s what I did.”

Higgins hurled herself at a Gia Martyn cross with 51.9 seconds left in double overtime, willing it over the line and sending the third-seeded Lions past No. 10 Gwynedd Mercy in the District 1 Class 3A semifinals.

 Penncrest’s Carly Dunford unleashes a blast during Wednesday night’s District 1 Class 3A semifinal against Gwynedd Mercy. (Digital First Media/Anne Neborak)

Penncrest’s Carly Dunford unleashes a blast during Wednesday night’s District 1 Class 3A semifinal against Gwynedd Mercy. (Digital First Media/Anne Neborak)

The win earns Penncrest (14-1-3) a berth in Saturday’s district final — against top-seeded Villa Joseph Marie, a 2-0 winner over Villa Maria in the other semi — at Phoenixville High at 4 p.m. It also sends the Lions to their first PIAA tournament in at least 15 years, per athletic director Chip Olinger.

Much of the triumph had to do with Higgins’ one-woman tale of redemption. She had the game on her boot with four minutes to play in the second overtime, sprung down the left channel with just goalkeeper Payton Morrissey to beat. Higgins lashed a rising shot, but Morrissey reached up and hauled it in with two firm hands.

“I thought it was going to go in, actually, and I was really confident about it,” Higgins said. “And when she got it, I was like, OK. … We just needed to keep going and keep fighting. I knew we were going to get one in eventually, because that’s what we do. We keep fighting.”

“I think she got a little hungrier,” Martyn said. “I think at that point, she was like, ‘OK, I missed that one, I need to go get the next one.’ She put her body right into it and she got the goal.”

Martyn was the architect of both of Higgins’ seminal chances. She got Penncrest on the board by herself in the first half, lofting a floating free kick from 25 yards out after fellow midfielder Corryn Gamber ran through a double team to draw a foul.

Martyn’s delivery kept carrying, nicking off the flailing mitts of Morrssey and into the side netting to put the Lions ahead in the 32nd minute.

The lead wouldn’t last, though, as the pendulum of play swung back and forth. The Monarchs (9-10-2), who tipped No. 2 Lower Moreland in the quarterfinals, warmed to the game after the break. They finally got the desired breakthrough in the 68th when Kimberly Sanford skied an acute-angle drive that kept carrying over goalie Bryn McLaughlin and just over the line for a goal.

It was a deserving payoff for Gwynedd Mercy’s shift in fortunes.

Penncrest's Olivia Mancarella, front, jumps for a header over Gwynedd Mercy's Cailin Panacek Wednesday. (Digital First Media/Anne Neborak)

Penncrest’s Olivia Mancarella, front, jumps for a header over Gwynedd Mercy’s Cailin Panacek Wednesday. (Digital First Media/Anne Neborak)

The senior midfielder Sanford was forced to leave the game with 90 seconds left in regulation when she appeared to shake free on a breakaway. But Penncrest’s Carly Dunford slid across with a heavy but clean desperation tackle that she measured perfectly.

“I knew she couldn’t get the ball in the goal, and I was willing to do anything to stop her for it,” Dunford said. “I went for it and I gave it my all to stop her.”

“It’s really tough because she’s been an amazing leader of all the captains this season,” GMA defender Bridget Casey said of playing overtime without Sanford. “She put all her effort in and she finished with everything on the field.”

Casey provided a similar intervention in the first OT, blocking a goal-bound Martyn volley. Logan Morris troubled Morrissey late in the first session, then slipped Higgins in for look early in the second OT. GAM’s Meghan Corso volleyed a shot over the bar with 10 minutes to play as the game got stretched, and those openings inspired the best from Martyn, who ratcheted it up another notch.

“She goes into a next gear,” Higgins said. “She pushes everyone else. When she does that, everyone else gets fired up and does it, too. She opens up plays for everyone.”

The result was a feeling that the Lions, even driven by the sizeable chip on their shoulders as newcomers to the state tournament scene, struggled to encapsulate.

“It’s ridiculous,” Higgins said. “I opened my eyes and I was on the ground and there were people just running onto the field, and it was an amazing feeling. I was almost suffocating with people hugging me and my heart was racing and I can’t even explain it.”

“A lot of teams and a lot of people didn’t know what Penncrest soccer was a couple of years ago,” Martyn said. “They still doubt us today. They still don’t think we’re as great of a team now. But we’re going to states and we’re going to show them what we’re made of.”

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