CONCORD >> When she first cracked the varsity roster at Garnet Valley as a freshman last year, Kara Nealon couldn’t find any openings at her natural midfield spot.
A loaded roster built up by multi-year starters in their senior years meant that Nealon wasn’t going to be finding time at midfield, so the Penn State commit looked back in the lineup. Defense presented an opportunity to earn immediate playing time, so it didn’t take much to sell her on the idea.
This year, however, Nealon moved back to midfield when the depth chart loosened up a little bit, and Saturday, she showed she can produce some offense, too. She tallied a hat trick and tacked on a pair of assists as the Jaguars hammered Downingtown East, 17-7, to clinch a spot in the District 1 Class 3a semifinals and a state tournament spot.
Garnet Valley moves on to play Springfield, a 11-7 winner over West Chester Rustin, Tuesday.
“Last year, I was just going to play wherever I could,” Nealon said. “It really helped me out, honestly, because midfield works both ways, so it was good. I think getting confidence on attack was the biggest adjustment. We have really great seniors like Madi O’Brien, who has helped me out, especially since I lost a year of not playing attack.”
To be fair, there’s plenty of offensive talent in the Nealon family for her to pick up from. Twin sister Regan, a fellow Penn State commit, netted two goals and dished out an assist. Older brother Denny is a senior on the boys’ team and a Lehigh signee who tallied more than 200 career points before recently tearing his ACL.
Kara didn’t have to go too far to pick up some offensive tips, nor does she have to worry about finding someone to battle with in the background to hone her skills.
“I’d say it’s pretty even with Regan,” Nealon said. “We go 1-(vs.)-1 in the backyard and it gets pretty intense.”
What if the question were posed to her twin?
“She’ll say she won more, but that’s not very true,” Nealon said.
Having both Nealons around works well for the Jaguars (16-5). They combined to score three of the game’s first six goals as Garnet Valley raced out to a 6-0 lead before the game was eight minutes old. It was the first time the teams met in the playoffs since the 2011 state title game, when the Jaguars won 17-14. This time, though, there wasn’t much doubt as to who was coming away with the win after that start.
But if Downingtown East (14-7) had any thoughts of a comeback, the Jaguars’ defense was there to lock things down. Credit a cohesive chemistry for that.
“One thing that’s great about our team is we have such great chemistry on and off the field, so we’ve always had those friendships that started off the field, and coming on the field, it was easy to build off of that,” defender Beth Hoffman said. “Our defense, from the beginning of the season until now, has definitely changed. Our communication has gotten 10 times better and I think that’s what made our defensive unit so strong.”
Sophomore Livi Lawton led the Cougars’ efforts … well, just about everywhere. She battled hard in the draw circle despite being at a serious height disadvantage against the Jaguars’ 6-1 specialist, Madi McKee, led transition and buried a pair of goals. The North Carolina commit’s role increased when Ches-Mont MVP Tori Barretta went down with an injury, but she looks like she can handle it.
“I think I can play just as much of a role as anybody else,” Lawton said. “We all have to be in the game and give 100 percent. My role is just as important as anybody else’s. We have to get our heads focused for practice on Monday and fix the things that happened in the game for Tuesday. We just have to clear our heads.”
On the Garnet Valley side, it’s full speed ahead to try take down more Cougars.
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