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Springfield’s O’Connell says prior loss has fueled hunger for title

When Archbishop Carroll and Springfield met on May 6, it wouldn’t have been hyperbole to tout a potential state final preview.

Carroll carried a 13-0 record. Springfield’s ledger had but one blemish, and the Cougars rode a 12-game winning streak.

The battle that ensued, a 10-9 decision for Carroll, presaged a bountiful postseason for both sides.

And a month later, the teams renew acquaintance Saturday with a PIAA Class 3A championship on the line (West Chester East, noon). As both teams prepare, the previous encounter weighs heavily on the process.

“I feel like us losing just shows how much more we want it now,” Springfield midfielder Maggie O’Connell said Thursday. “It was a nonleague game; this is a state championship now. We want it now.”

There are caveats from that meeting that require disclosure. In the crucible of the Central League, Springfield’s nonleague encounters perhaps carry less weight. For example, Carroll romped by an average of 16 goals in the three games preceding the Springfield contest, while the Cougars had a league battle looming with states qualifier Strath Haven just three days after the Carroll loss.

Carroll led 9-5 late in that game before Springfield rattled off four straight goals while the Patriots were down a player due to yellow card accumulation. Sam Swart ripped the game-winner in the final minute to push Carroll over the top.

“Playing them again is exciting,” Springfield goalie Julianne Clemens said. “You want to win. You want to get the comeback. They beat us last time by one, so we want to be the team that is up this time instead of them.”

“It proves that they want to win really bad, too, just like us,” Carroll attacker Anna Murphy said. “So it’s going to be really hard. We have two more practices, so we’re going to be working on a lot of stuff to get to that point to show that we’re ready to win. They’re probably doing the exact same thing, watching the tape from that game. It’s going to be a really good game.”

Whatever the tea leaves of the previous encounter indicate, Saturday’s tilt features two peaking teams. Carroll (23-1) is unbeaten against PIAA opposition, its only defeat at the hands of Agnes Irwin. It has won six straight since, chopping down District 1 foes Strath Haven, Owen J. Roberts and Garnet Valley en route to the program’s first PIAA final appearance.

Carroll is 9-0 against District 1 sides this season, eight of those games against teams that qualified for the PIAA tournament, including Class 2A finalist Radnor.

Swart has led the way with 16 goals in her last two outings. Katie Detwiler closely trails with 10 goals in the state tourney. The duo combined for six goals and four assists against Springfield last time.

Springfield (20-4) diffuses its top-line offense. Leading scorer Olivia Little has coped with a leg injury that has limited her to just two goals in three states games. But others have picked up the slack. Senior Bridget Whitaker has fired home 11 states goals, including a career-high six in the first-round win over Exeter. Whitaker and Bailey O’Brien recorded hat tricks in the semifinal dismissal of Downingtown East, O’Brien providing the game-winner in the final minute.

Springfield has predicated its attack on spreading the wealth and finding the hot shooter among a passel of weapons.

“I think it’s great that we have such a strong attack because if one player’s not having a good game, someone’s going to step up no matter what,” O’Connell said. “So if a team is trying to shut off Bridget one game, Bailey is going to be on, or vice-versa. You can’t really shut one player out because everyone’s going to step up.”

Springfield, by virtue of its tougher league, is arguably more battle-tested, toting a 5-2 record in contests decided by three goals or fewer. Carroll has only played three such games, two in states.

While the familiarity has shaped the lead-up, the pressure of the states stage will mold Saturday’s rematch. Carroll, the 17-time reigning Catholic League champ, is in its first final, having won as many games in this year’s state tournament as in its previous eight trips combined. Carroll is the first non-District 1 team to play for a state title.

Springfield seeks its first PIAA title, having last made the final in the one-class format in 2014 only to fall to Garnet Valley.

Those factors sum to what should be a taut finale.

“It’s really exciting,” Carroll defender Rachel Matey said. “Even the regular-season games were exciting. But this time, it’s the first time we’ve ever gone this far, the energy on the team is going to be great.”

“It was just such a close game that both teams wanted it, but it came down to them winning,” O’Connell said. “On Saturday, I think it’s going to be a different team winning.”

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