NEWTOWN >> Last year, the Saint Basil Academy soccer team made its first appearance in the District 1 tournament in more than eight years.
The Panthers accounted well for themselves but lost in their first game. When this season began, back in the summer heat of preseason, the players made a goal to get farther.
Next week, they will play in the state tournament and they will do it as the top seed out of District I thanks to their 3-0 win over New Hope-Solebury in the District 1/12 Class AA regional final Saturday evening at Council Rock North.
“We’d beaten them previously, so we had a lot of confidence going in,” forward Sophia Mahoney said. “We had to have the mindset that it was a 0-0 game and we would have to come out hard.”
Mahoney scored two goals to lead the offense while Brooke Shissler made five saves in net to anchor a strong defensive performance as the Panthers pretty much controlled the entire game against New Hope. It was a game that St. Basil didn’t have to win in order to make states, but there was a lot of energy behind the effort.
The Panthers have been playing this most recent stretch after an in-season coaching change. Bob Opalka took over and was a source of energy for his team Saturday.
“That was the fire behind it and we wanted to prove to the school and everyone else that we can still do this,” Mahoney said. “We want to earn respect.”
St. Basil got on the board quite quickly off a corner kick when midfielder Lauren Baldo showed some really good hops to get up and head in a well-hit cross by Cheryl Remolde with 33:13 left in the first half. The Panthers’ set pieces, especially corners, were pretty solid all game.
“It boosted everyone’s confidence and made it realistic that we could actually win districts,” Mahoney said. “They might look good, but usually it’s just us adjusting to where the ball is being played.”
Mahoney doubled the team’s lead about 10 minutes later with a strike from about five yards out. Meghan DeComenico ripped a shot from distance that the keeper got hands on, then clanged off the crossbard before falling to Mahoney in the box.
Her second goal, which came with 22:45 left, counted the same but was much higher on the aesthetic quality index. Erin Gilsenan played Mahoney a good through ball and the forward did the rest, dribbling into space, getting to the endline then putting a well-measured ball back across to the far post.
After being held to just one shot in the first half, New Hope found its legs in the second half and started to test St. Basil’s defense a little more. Fortunately for the Panthers, the back line was up for it and Shissler had their backs after having little to do in the opening 40 minutes.
“I just had to make sure I was staying focused,” Shissler said. “I try to stay confident. We had a good relationship coming in and it just kept getting stronger as the season went on.”
St. Basil has just two seniors on its roster, so it’s a very young team that has been able to reach the goals it set for itself in preseason. AnnMarie Coates, Cara Hughes and Maddie McCrea were also active for the Panthers, who seemed to be first to every 50/50 ball in the game.
“Last year when we lost in playoffs it was an eye-opener for us,” Shissler said. “We knew what we had to do and where we needed to be, so that really helped us.”
Playing as one of the smaller schools in the AACA, with much of the league making districts in their respective classes, has surely helped the Panthers now that they’re playing teams their size. Tuesday’s state game will be a new experience, but the Panthers plan to attack it the same way as any game.
“We’ve played some pretty big and some pretty good teams,” Shissler said. “Every hard game was just more lessons and adding on and making us decide what we had to do to get to this point.”
Top Photo: St. Basil’s Sophie Mahoney celebrates her goal, the first in District 1/12 Class AA regional final against New Hope-Solebury on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016. (Bob Raines/Digital First Media)