SOUTH WHITEHALL >> It all started so promising for Saint Basil on a sunny afternoon at Parkland High, almost too promising.
Sophia Mahoney’s goal less than 20 minutes in had the Panthers quickly in front in this PIAA Class AA quarterfinal game against Lake Lehman.
“We don’t usually get the early goal. I’m sitting there thinking, this isn’t good,” coach Bob Opalka kidded afterwards.
But Basil did play an exceptional first half, holding the lead until just two minutes remained before the break. The Panthers would put a heavy dose of pressure on the Knight net in the second half, but it would be Lake Lehman that would score the only goal, earning a 2-1 victory over Basil to advance to the semis on Tuesday.
“We put a lot of pressure on them,” Opalka said. “(Lehman’s) defense held up. (Lehman goalie Stephanie Ayers) had a case of the dropsies and we just couldn’t get the ball when we needed to. They’re a quality team. You gotta hand it to them.”
Mahoney and the Panthers came ever so close on multiple occassions to getting the tying goal in the final minutes, but Lake Lehman, champions of District Two, hung in.
“They played well. They played a smart game,” Opalka said. “They took their two chances beautifully. We took ours very well. We probably had more chances than they did but the ball’s gotta go in the back of the net.”
Basil nearly took its 1-0 lead to halftime but Amanda Ayers set up Mackenzie Love, locking things up for the Knights.
Lake Lehman fought through the early deficit.
“It was a little overwhelming,” Love said, “but we knew that we really had to step it up and start playing our game and settle down.”
Ayers again had the right touch early in the second half, this time taking it all the way in herself and poking in the go-ahead goal with 28 minutes to play.
Said Love: “We really pushed for the goals and we really wanted it. We played with our minds and our hearts.
“We’re really connecting as a team, setting up passes and beautiful shots.”
It took that kind of effort and chemistry to disrupt a magical ride for Saint Basil, a ride that wasn’t without some turbulence but nevertheless equaled the Panthers’ deepest trip into the postseason, matching their state quarterfinal finish of 2007.
“It’s been a very difficult ride for these kids because the coach (Jack Kilroy), who basically put this team together, was let go with one game left in the season,” Opalka said. “Jack and I have been friends for many years and I was brought in as the JV coach.
“The assistant coaches (including Melanie Stauble, who was on the ‘07 team) and I — we picked up the pieces with this team and these girls did a tremendous job of kind of pulling themselves off the mat, getting themselves together and making this run. It was a wonderful run and I’m very proud of them.”
With the District One Champs losing only two seniors to graduation and bringing back an experienced crop of 12 juniors and a few other underclassmen, there could be another run ahead.