ROYERSFORD >> Entering the district playoffs on an uncharacteristic three-game losing streak, the Spring-Ford girls soccer team went back to the beginning: the beginning of preseason.
“After we lost against PJP (in the Pioneer Athletic Conference semifinals, coach Tim Leyland) said it’s the ‘post-preseason,’ and it’s all about competing for your place again,” senior Lily Nowakowski said. “I think I did well and I guess he did, too.”
Nowakowski earned herself her first start of the season and rewarded Leyland and No. 9 seed Spring-Ford’s faith by scoring her team’s crucial opening goal in a one-sided 3-0 victory over No. 24 Harriton in a District 1 Class 4A first round game Tuesday night at Coach McNelly Stadium.
It was one-way traffic in Spring-Ford’s favor throughout, but the Rams only led 1-0 with under 14 minutes to play, with Nowakowski’s take from an intelligent ball over the top from midfielder Allie Christman the only difference. Alayna Gairo and Mack Mitchell put the finishing touches on the win in a three-minute span.
“Once we were at practice we knew what the stakes were, this is districts and it’s single elimination and we got to work and it showed tonight,” Nowakowski said.
Getting back in the win column was relief enough for the Rams, especially in an elimination game.
“It feels really good. We have practice tomorrow and it’s a nice feeling to know we’re still going,” senior defender Molly McHarg said. “Once we lost that game against PJP it was the need to get our heads in the game and pick our energy up.”
Spring-Ford (14-3-1) next faces No. 8 Central Bucks South on the road Thursday night at 7 p.m.
Harriton concluded its season 10-7-1 after reaching districts for the third straight season. After being knocked out in the second round by Spring-Ford in 2015, the Rams were district qualifiers as the No. 24 seed in back-to-back years. The scoreline flatters more than last season’s 10-0 defeat to Downingtown West, yet coach Jeff Rhodes sees only positives in playing the level of competition in districts.
“You go out there and you want to see what the better teams are because our aspirations are to become one of those programs,” Rhodes said. “Spring-Ford’s a tremendous program with very skilled players. They bring a different intensity than what we’re exposed to for most of the season, so trying to match their level and getting the girls to realize they can hang and that they need to work harder than they’ve ever worked and doing it day in and day out, all of a sudden it becomes habit.”
The two Ram rosters are in contrast of one another: Spring-Ford features 19 seniors, Harriton’s features one – forward Morgan Rees, the school’s single-season scoring record holder with her 23 goals this year.
“I think we have a lot to grow as team. We only have one senior but she’ll be greatly missed. You can’t replace her,” Rhodes said. “But it’s a great opportunity for other players to step up. Making it to the playoffs is a great experience and it shows they really worked hard together.”
The game belonged to Spring-Ford though. It dominated Harriton 15-0 in shots on goal, 27-3 in shot attempts and 7-3 in corner kicks.
The Harriton defense, led by freshman goalkeeper Lexy Calhoun and junior Reilly Short and Allison Schwab, hung in well for 60 minutes with Nowakowski’s goal being the only exception on the scoreboard.
Christman struck a lovely ball from behind midfield over the head of the left back for Nowakowski who streaked down the right side.
“I was going and I heard Coach Tim say ‘Drive! Drive!’” she said. “I think I would have passed it. Sometimes you do have to be selfish.”
She carried it into the penalty area and tipped it under a late-crashing Calhoun for a 1-0 lead in the 15th minute.
Spring-Ford kept pushing for more as Harriton made a number of last-ditch saves off the line from defenders Emily Stewart and Ashley Wald, and a key stop from Calhoun on a Kelly Franz volley. Calhoun didn’t return after being hit in the face by a Ella Curry blast from close range.
Rees nearly had the improbable equalizer with 14:30 to play but her shot hit the side-netting. That triggered Spring-Ford back into action as Gairo popped her shot off the bottom of the crossbar with 13:46 remaining and Mitchell hit a nice, high shot down the left with 11:38 to go.
While the scoring hadn’t been flowing like Spring-Ford would have liked in its successive defeats to eventual PAC champion Owen J. Roberts, Cumberland Valley and Pope John Paul II, its players hope Tuesday night was a sign that things are on the right trajectory.
“We have that urge to go forward,” McHarg said. “It’s just we haven’t had the best shots on net, but tonight it really showed out in a game that means something.”
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