BUCKTOWN >> Caroline Thompson and Mahogany Willis genuinely weren’t sure what to expect from their senior seasons with the Owen J. Roberts girls soccer team.
After losing in the Pioneer Athletic Conference championship and not achieving their other goals while returning nearly the same team, they wondered, ‘Why would anything be different?’
Thursday night was further proof that a lot was different. Maturation and determination equaled celebration.
Owen J. Roberts stayed the course against Pope John Paul II’s determined defensive approach before Willis ultimately earned a penalty kick for her team which was finished by junior Mia Baumgarten, the lone goal in the Wildcats’ 1-0 PAC championship victory Thursday night on their home field.
— Austin Hertzog (@AustinHertzog) October 20, 2017
It was Owen J. Roberts’ (18-1) first league title since the 2010 season and its second straight appearance in the final after losing to Spring-Ford in the 2016 final.
That loss served as a huge motivation to this year’s Wildcats.
“I wasn’t sure how this year was going to go. We were returning the same team as last year so I thought it could be a repeat of last year. Everyone knows what we’re trying to do. But the key thing is, it’s our last year, our last year to push,” Thompson said. “The juniors have grown a lot, too, and the mix of a mostly upperclassmen team really helped this year.”
“I thought they learned a lot from last year,” OJR coach Joe Margusity said of his team. “Sometimes in these big games you need to lose to learn how to win. They’ve just showed incredible composure throughout the year finding ways to win.”
For four-year starters like Willis and center back Kylie Cahill, it’s been something of a long journey.
“It’s awesome. Those four years we’ve learned a lot and we showed that,” Cahill said. “Last year was disappointing and I think that made us how we are this year. We want to be on top and get out of that drought. And here we are.”
Cahill and Margusity cited the additions of freshmen forward Sarah Kopec, defender Emily Sands and goalkeeper Samantha Hughes (3 saves) as crucial pieces to the championship puzzle.
With Pope John Paul II (14-2-1), which unseated Spring-Ford in the semifinals, playing a 4-5-1 and defensive shape, the Golden Panthers set out to be tough to break down – and were. Their primary target was to slow Willis, who has scored 30 goals this season.
“On a night where PJP is doing very well shutting Mahogany down, being able to manufacture that PK … you can find ways to slow her, but you can’t stop her,” Margusity said.
OJR controlled possession throughout, with junior midfielder Kylee MacLeod proving the game’s standout as she won countless 50-50 balls and kept the Wildcats in the ascendancy.
PJP kept Owen J. at bay through the first half. Willis created a few chances but fired high with her shot on a few occasions with MacLeod, Thompson, Julia Dalton and Kenzie Milne providing the supply line.
Still scoreless at halftime, Cahill and Willis made impassioned pleas to the OJR team during the break.
“At the beginning of the season we came up with the motto ‘Gold or fold.’ We have been having an awesome season and I just said to them, ‘We deserve this. We’ve come this far and this is our game,’” Cahill said.
While PJP standout Kayla Mesaros was unable to get into the game as much as the Golden Panthers would have liked, Willis was getting her chances. OJR finally caught its break with 14:21 remaining when Willis had her heel clipped from behind in the penalty area.
Junior Baumgarten stepped up and blasted her shot to PJP goalkeeper Stacy Kormos’ right, giving the game its only goal.
“Oh my God, it’s amazing,” Willis said after the win. “I knew we were going to score eventually, it was just about getting the right placement of the ball.
“I knew they were going to man-mark me but then I realized all four backs were following me. We had to take a different game plan in the second half and it worked.”
Pope John Paul II was left feeling hard done, seeing a solid performance become a loss on a penalty decision.
“It’s tough when a ref decides a game like that,” PJP coach Stew Sherk said. “You had two teams laying it all out there and I thought they should have let them play. But all the credit to Owen J. They came to play tonight and they have a lot of talented players. I’m proud of our girls for neutralizing Mahogany and we held her scoreless. Unfortunately we ended up on the wrong side of it, but our girls played their hearts out.”
The Golden Panthers have plenty to look forward to though as the No. 3 seed entering the District 1-3A playoffs.
“We’re not happy. We wanted to win this and the girls really wanted it,” Sherk said. “Taking this program from nothing and being in the Final Four four years in a row, few have accomplished this. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. The big picture is getting through districts and hopefully making it to states.”
The aspirations are similar for the Wildcats, who were No. 1 in the latest District 1-4A power rankings.
“Obviously we’d like to go far in districts and make it to states, but right now we have to think about everything one game at a time,” Thompson said. “As you saw, games are close now. There are no easy games. We just have to gut through.”
So far, so good.
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