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Radnor rules again thanks to high-pressure defense

WEST CHESTER >> Natalie Junior is the first to admit that there was a time where she wasn’t the biggest fan of Radnor’s defensive system.

Even for the tenacious but diminutive senior defender, the constant motion and incessant harassment mandated by Brooke Fritz’s high-pressure style is a bit taxing.

Radnor goalie Alexa Solomon, left, and midfielder Nicole Massimino embrace after the final whistle of Radnor’s 12-6 triumph over Bishop Shanahan Thursday in the District 1 Class 2A final. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

But a season’s worth of tired legs and ice packs seemed worthwhile Thursday.

The No. 2 Raiders pitched a shutout for 19-plus minutes in the first half, amassing an eight-goal cushion that it never looked in jeopardy of losing in a 12-6 march to the District 1 Class 2A title over Bishop Shanahan at West Chester Henderson High School.

The advantage was as much fostered by the offensive work as the dogged defense, which prevented the Eagles from finding the back of the net until 5:18 remained in the first period. By that juncture, Radnor had punctured the Shanahan resolve for eight goals, well on the way to repeating as District 1 champs after claiming the title in the old, one-classification format last year.

Fourth-seeded Shanahan got the better of 12 of 20 draw controls, including seven of 12 in the first half. But it was far too sloppy in possession, precipitated in part by the Radnor pestering.

“We play really high pressure D most of the time,” Junior said. “And I used to hate it, but now I really like it because I’ve seen that caused turnovers are a huge game-changer to us. And that really got them in this game, because every time they got it, they’d almost turn it over immediately, and we’re a really good transition team.”

“It was a couple of the scrappy ground balls that we capitalized on,” said Shanahan’s Kenzie Staska, who grabbed nine draw controls and scored. “Once we got down on attack, we just threw the ball away, we couldn’t really possess it.”

Radnor’s scheme relies on having its defenders push well beyond the eight-meter goal area, inflicting duress on even routine passes. With active sticks by Junior and others, and the height of midfielders like Allison Lanzone clogging passing lanes, breaking down the Raiders is a daunting proposition, as the Eagles learned. And on those rare breakthroughs into space, there’s still Alexa Solomon to contend with, and the senior goalie provided seven saves Thursday. Her steadfastness in net is the rock on which the high pressure can be built.

“It’s a lot of trust for all of us, and there’s a lot of seniors back there this year, so that’s great,” Junior said. “And we’re working with our underclassmen who are really catching on to everything, and it’s all about trusting your teammates and going with what you feel is your gut instinct.”

The offense backed that stinginess with a burst to start the game, and the goalscoring protagonist was an unlikely suspect: Nicole Massimino. The senior has been integral to the attack all season, but she found another level Thursday with a season-best four goals.

Radnor’s Hope Smith, left, and Nicole Massimino pass the District 1 Class 2A Championship trophy after a 12-6 win in the final over Bishop Shanahan Thursday. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

“I think it was just that the whole attack was working together,” Massimino said. “And I think the more we move, the more shots that became open.”

A pair of markers by Ellie Mueller capped the eight-goal run to start the game, putting the final result out of reach early. Massimino scored early in the second half stemming the tide of a three-goal Shanahan run to end the first half.

“When I see Nicole on like that, it’s the most amazing feeling,” said attacker Julianne Puckette. “She and I are like the double duo out there, we play off of each other all the time. And when she’s on, and vice versa, it’s a good thing.”

Puckette, who scored six times in Radnor routs in both the quarterfinals and semis, completed her hat trick early in the second half, and Massimino’s fourth at 13:46 restored a seven-goal ump at 11-4.

Shanahan battled, getting two goals from Keara Smith, but the early deficit proved too large to overcome.

“We dug ourselves a really deep hole,” Staska said. “And for any team, that’s really hard to get out of. And we struggled to get out of the hole until the second half, and at that point it was a little too late. But we did dig ourselves out a little bit at the end, and I’m really proud of everyone for doing that.”

For a second straight year, Radnor got to experience the medals-and-trophy bit. Last year’s triumph, a prelude to a PIAA final berth that included vanquishing Central League rivals Haverford, Conestoga and Garnet Valley before Owen J. Roberts in the final, had its unique signature.

This year, drawn into the smaller of two PIAA classifications with a bevy of smaller private schools that rarely make the Raiders’ daunting nonleague schedule is different, but not necessarily in a bad way, Junior said.

“Last year was definitely a bit more emotional just because we had been really just going with everything, taking it one game at a time,” she said. “And we’ve been playing more ahead this year, so it’s really been awesome to see that we’ve been able to repeat. Especially in this new (class), it’s been a lot different for us.”

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