ROYERSFORD >> Emma Steigerwald and Taylor Platt couldn’t look at each other.
“Don’t look at me!” Platt barked at her best friend and Downingtown East girls soccer teammate.
But it certainly wasn’t anger between the Cougars juniors. They just couldn’t help but crack each other up while attempting to talk about the biggest win of their scholastic soccer careers.
It was hard not to be giddy after Downingtown East scored two goals in the first 15 minutes and later withstood Spring-Ford’s best efforts to snatch a 2-0 victory in the District 1-AAAA fifth-place game to send the Cougars to the PIAA Championships for the first time since 2013.
Downingtown East (17-5-1) is bound for states after early exits from districts the past two years, all while negotiating the rugged road of qualifying through playbacks.
“It’s awesome taking it this far after two years of not getting past the first round,” Platt said.
“We do really good under pressure during games like this. It’s really exciting for all of us,” Steigerwald said.
There was definitely pressure, especially against a Spring-Ford team that beat Downingtown East 5-1 on Oct. 1. But the pressure was alleviated by Steigerwald on a classy one-touch redirection of Olivia Lawton’s low cross in the 9th minute. Five minutes later Lawton played the finisher with a rising shot from the right side, East scoring more on Spring-Ford in the first 15 minutes than they could muster through all 80 the first time around.
A dream start you could say.
“Yeah! Oh, my gosh, yeah,” Steigerwald said. “The first 15 minutes we came out there and pushed each other and got two goals really fast. It was awesome.”
“We wanted to do everything we could to get the lead and wanted to do that early and we were pressing to do that,” East coach Craig Reed said. “To have Emma, who has been fantastic all year, score and then Olivia Lawton comes through with that second goal. Those are two special players with two brilliant goals.”
Pioneer Athletic Conference champion Spring-Ford was left trying to recover in a do-or-done game that went its way in 2013 and 2014 when it reached the PIAA final and semifinal, respectively.
The Rams out-shot the increasingly defensive Cougars as the game progressed, 5-3 in shots on goal and 11-10 in goal attempts (shots on and off frame). Their best chances came right after the Cougars’ burst on a KK O’Donnell cross for Kelly Franz, but the timing was slightly off, a recurring theme throughout the game’s final 65 minutes for S-F.
Their other best chance was when freshman Elle Kershner got herself to the doorstep of the goal with East goalkeeper Courtney Dunlop on the deck. But Dunlop lunged to grab the ball from Kershner’s feet before she could shoot or pass.
The Cougars’ attack – Steigerwald pairing up top with Rebekah March plus the midfield support of Lawton, Jess Keeler, Brenna Warren and Angela Carcella – got the plaudits in the first half, it’s 4-4-2 formation applying pressure on the Rams’ back three of Libby Andrews, Missy Moore and Molly McHarg. The second half’s went to Dunlop (five saves), Platt and fellow defenders Niamh Sweeney, Emily Wurzel and Maddie Eckels, which denied Spring-Ford a fourth-straight berth in the state tournament.
Final: Downingtown East 2, Spring-Ford 0, 1-AAAA girls soccer playback. Cougars are on to states pic.twitter.com/bC3K6p79xh
— Austin Hertzog (@AustinHertzog) November 5, 2016
“We knew they would come out and be motivated to come after us,” Platt said. “We had to hold on and keep everything out.”
With players the level of Steigerwald and Platt – they are fellow captains with Warren – keeping things fun, there’s plenty of reason for smiles around Downingtown East.
“They can keep the mood light and I think that’s how it should be,” Reed said. “It’s always competitive and we’re focused when we need to be focused but we want it to always be fun. When they’re playing relaxed sometimes we can put together a game like that (Saturday’s performance).”
Downingtown East, as District 1’s No. 5 seed, will face District 3 champion Cumberland Valley in Tuesday’s PIAA first round.
The regular season meeting won by Spring-Ford, 5-1, on Oct. 1 loomed large on Saturday at Spring-Ford’s Coach McNelly Stadium. Just not in the Rams’ favor.
“We all had the mentality to not overlook them and act like we didn’t beat them already,” Spring-Ford senior center back Libby Andrews said. “I almost wish we didn’t have that 5-1 cushion behind us so we could have gone in with a completely new mind and not have that patch of confidence behind us. That uneasiness can give you an edge.”
Spring-Ford couldn’t summon the knack for a comeback it employed in its playback semifinal win over Downingtown West and against Pope John Paul II in the PAC semifinals.
“We usually come back. I don’t think any of us were startled (by East’s start),” Andrews said. “We all expected to come back but it didn’t happen, as much as we wanted to.”
Coincidentally, Spring-Ford ended Downingtown East’s last trip to the PIAA Championships, the Rams winning their 2013 quarterfinal 1-0.
Don’t Miss a Beat
Spring-Ford was supposed to take a step back with the losses of star players Gabrielle Vagnozzi (St. Joseph’s), Laura Suero (Penn State) and Taylor Newhart (La Salle), who gave the team a pep talk at halftime.
Instead, the Rams kept rising by going 22-2-1 on the season and reclaiming the PAC championship.
“Everyone always said this was our ‘rebuilding season.’ Obviously it wasn’t,” Andrews said. “We broke so many records, we took the PAC championship back, we really came together as a team.
“I think we proved a lot of people wrong. Even though we didn’t make states, we still had such a great run and that’s what I’m proud of. We showed that Spring-Ford can come together and be deep and win games and keep the reputation.”
Spring-Ford’s senior class featured Andrews, Moore, goalkeeper Amanda Byrd, Juliana Alessandroni and Mikayla Teets.
Downingtown East navigated the challenge of making states through playbacks with only one spot available for the four quarterfinal losers.
“It’s a really tough road, especially when Pennridge beat us 1-0 and then we had to comeback and beat Pennsbury, the No. 2 seed, and Spring-Ford, who in my opinion is one of the top teams in the district and the state,” Reed said. “To win four games, go 4-1 against district opponents, I’m really proud of them. They play with tons of energy and heart and there’s a lot of passion there.”