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Gamber, Penncrest slip past Pope John Paul, back into district final

MIDDLETOWN >> The evolution of the Penncrest girls soccer team, with nine starters returning from its PIAA Class 3A qualifier a season ago, has been necessarily and beneficially gradual.

As the core has gained a year of experience without a direct heir to playmaking engine Gia Martyn, the Lions have adapted, piling on nuance to complement the quantum leap of Corryn Gamber’s transformation from authoritative central midfielder to an attention-demanding center forward.

And those changes have the Lions reascending the heights of the last campaign.

Penncrest’s Corryn Gamber, right, runs at Pope John Paul II’s Lainey Owens Monday. Gamber scored the only goal in a 1-0 Penncrest win in the District 1 Class 3A semifinal. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

Gamber’s goal in the fifth minute Monday stood up, the third-seeded Lions resolutely withstanding extended stretches of attack by Pope John Paul II in a 1-0 win in the District 1 semifinal.

Penncrest (18-1) returns to the district final, where it awaits the winner of Tuesday’s semi between top-seeded Villa Joseph Marie and No. 4 Lower Moreland, postponed by wet field conditions Monday. Villa Joseph Marie trounced Penncrest, 4-0, in last year’s final.

Penncrest also secured one of the district’s two PIAA bids.

The fact that Gamber scored, her 22nd marker of the season, wasn’t the full measure of change from last year. But the setup was. Making one of dozens of diagonal runs at the defense, Gamber selected the proper path and found a ball arrowed in by right back Katie Sparling. Gamber took a touch to draw out goalkeeper Stacy Kormos before depositing into the back of the net.

That link between the back and the forward line has defined Penncrest’s stingy ways. Both Sparling and left back Kenna Kaut aggressively step into the attack and to cut out early balls in midfield. The calculation, even if an opponent occasionally leaks into space behind them, is that the degree of difficulty on the pass that would unlock the acreage is so high as to be not worth it. And cunning center backs Sarah Hughes and Shayna Polsky have the speed to intercept anything but a perfect pass.

“That’s why we try to push up and that’s why we try to draw them outside so that they’re not going into the middle,” Sparling said. “But when they come around, I’m very confident in Sarah and Shayna to get back and drop in, and then I’ll just drop in for them. I’m very confident in them.”

PHOTO GALLERY: Penncrest vs. Pope John Paul II

More than purity of style, the outside backs’ contributions cover for the youth in the center of the park. Polsky started the year in central midfield but dropped to defense when All-Delco defender Carly Dunford suffered a season-ending knee injury against Conestoga. The switch leaves the midfield Mullaney trio of the 4-3-3 to prioritize pressure to the ball and winning tackles over possession. That trait allows the backline to sit deep and absorb pressure, creating the illusion of space that the back four quickly clamp down on.

“As a holding mid, I usually try to switch the field and play balls over the top,” Pope John Paul’s Avery Cotter said. “But I couldn’t do that. I tried one and it got headed by them because they’re so deep. So we couldn’t do that. What we had to do was switch the field and build it up and have our central striker check to the ball and her do one-touch out wide and give-and-go’s.”

The Golden Panthers created a smattering of chances in the first half, mostly from distance, but Bryn McLaughlin made six of her seven saves before the break. The best chance came 90 seconds into the match, when Cotter pinged a free kick from 30 yards off the crossbar as part of a feverish start.

“Usually on my free kicks, I aim for the same spot, especially that side,” Cotter said. “So it was the same spot. No matter what team it is, I do that same shot.”

Forward Kayla Mesaros, often relegated to playing with her back to goal, fired two shots late in the first half, but the long-range efforts bounced before McLaughlin corralled them. An Emily Hughes header off Julia Owens’ free kick in the 34th minute forced a sprawling save from McLaughlin. Kaut wasted an open header off a Sparling free kick just before half, sending the shot skittering wide.

Penncrest goalie Bryn McLaughlin makes a save against Pope John Paul II in District 1 Class 3A semifinal game Monday night, won by the Lions 1-0. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

The tide turned in the second, both toward Penncrest aggression and increased physicality. The latter, given the teams’ encounter two weeks ago in a 2-1 Lions win, didn’t surprise.

“We were definitely expecting a very physical game, a very emotional game for both of us,” Sparling said. “It’s been a very close game every time we’ve played them, so we knew it was going to be a hard struggle.”

“Every time you’ve got to be first to, and you know it’s going to be body on body,” Cotter said. “So we know it was going to be like that coming in, and it’s just you have to be careful at the same time.”

Kormos intervened in the 63rd with a slide tackle on Gamber in the box after Grace Harding played her in. Carly Baillis and Logan Morris (twice) sailed efforts askew of the cage, Morris’ in the 64th cut against the grain wide of the far post with Kormos beaten. Kormos also stuffed Gamber with a minute to play, just after Cotter’s tight-angle volley veered wide.

For the Central League champion Lions, Monday marked another item ticked off the season’s to-do list … with more to come.

“Last year it was devastating,” Morris said of the Lions’ finish to the season. “We’re definitely hungry to go out and get our second chance and get a win this time.”

“That is what we’ve been talking about since August: district finals and state playoffs,” Sparling said. “And we’re just going to try get farther than we did last year.”

In the Class A semifinals:

Rain played havoc with the schedule Monday, as wet fields caused the cancellation of both semis, postponed a day to Tuesday. No. 2 seed Christian Academy will host No. 3 Dock Mennonite, while No. 4 Friends’ Select ventures to top-seeded Calvary Christian.

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