MIDDLETOWN >> If Springfield is going to reach its third state championship game of the decade and flip its fortunes from the first two appearances, the Cougars will rely on a balanced scoring load and a strong goalie in All-Delco Julianne Clemens.
The unit that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle, though, is Springfield’s tenacious defense. Tuesday, the Cougars, led by senior Erica Biehl and freshman Alyssa Long, put the clamps on District 3 No. 3 Exeter en route to a 15-5 rout in the opening round of the PIAA Class 3A tournament at Penncrest.
“I know that as a unit back there, we really try to play together, talk a lot, close space, and just do everything we can to help (Clemens),” Long said. “She’s like another player. She’s so active back there and it’s awesome. It’s like having an eighth defender back there.”
Springfield, District 1’s runner-up, advances to Saturday’s quarterfinal against District 3 runner-up Manheim Township. The Blue Streaks did away with District 7 champion Pine-Richland, 16-9. Long, already committed to 2016 national champion North Carolina, is the opposite of her brother, All-Delco Kyle. While the older Long keeps defenses busy with his uncanny, pinpoint passing, Alyssa is tasked with locking down teams’ top scorers.
“I play a lot of basketball, so my feet and the concepts of ‘see ball and girl’ and ‘head on a swivel’ and sliding have helped me play defense,” said Long, who also occasionally runs out of the midfield. “It’s however I can help my team. I love playing defense. I play offense whenever we need it. For me, I’m most comfortable with defense.”
Exeter freshman Bella Karstien kept Springfield on its heels in the first half, firing home a hat trick. In the second half, though, the Cougars switched things up and kept the Louisville commit off the board. Despite that, the Eagles’ standout upped her season total to 59 goals and also finished the game with a game-high six draw controls.
“We definitely knew she was going to goal — she had their first three goals — so we knew that she had to be shut off,” Biehl said. “We went to backer — Maggie (O’Connell) is always there to stop — and when we pressure, we shut off the sides. She’s always there to help us if we get beat. Everyone (on the defense) has their certain part that they have to do, certain ground balls, interceptions, so we all know our part that we have to do. Some people have better games, but everyone makes up for it by doing something.”
Bridget Whitaker led a balanced offense with a career-high six goals to go with one helper and four draw controls. Bailey O’Brien tacked on two goals and an assist while O’Connell added a pair of goals to go with her defense.
Springfield looked every bit the part of a team with a spot in the final on its mind, but the Cougars’ enthusiasm was curbed when standout Olivia Little went down with an injury in the first half and didn’t return. Little reached for a pass and fell awkwardly on the wet turf and had to be helped off the field. Springfield coach Keith Broome was uncertain as to her status for Saturday.
A 12-8 loss to Conestoga in the District 1 title game showed the Cougars what they had to work on, though, and Springfield showed that it learned its lesson quickly.
“I think we needed to come out right away in the first half and I think we did that,” said Whitaker, who popped in four first-half goals as Springfield constructed a 9-3 lead. “We definitely took it away in the second half like we always do. Coming out strong in the first is something we’ve been working on and we did that.”
In a very impressive fashion.