WORCESTER >> It was a little freshman exuberance that broke the façade and set off a round of the giggles.
Penncrest’s midfield Mullaney trio — senior Kat, sophomore Julia and freshman Kara — was describing its division of labor in the middle of the park, when Kara was asked what it was like to learn the ropes of varsity soccer with two older sisters behind her. With a sheepish look toward Kat, she summoned her truth.
“It’s great,” Kara said. “If someone’s like roughing me up a lot, I know (Kat) will have my back and hit them back. … She scares the other players away, kind of.”
The laughs reverberating around the trio reflected yet another instance of all three being on the same page — in perception at least, if not in when to share those revelations.
Jokes aside, the continuity the Mullaneys have brought to the Penncrest midfield is a big reason behind the Lions’ return trip to the District 1 Class 3A final and the PIAA Tournament, which they kick off Tuesday at Hamburg Area High School against District 3 champion Fleetwood (7 p.m.).
Just as their off-field personas flow seamlessly from one to another, so too do their on-field sensibilities. Kara, as the newcomer, has the lightest defensive load, a more attack-minded player usually deployed at the point of a fluid midfield triangle in the Penncrest 4-3-3. She’s scored three goals in her last 10 games, including a marker in the district quarterfinal win over Sun Valley. The quiet freshman has adapted well to playing off the shoulder of high-scoring forward Corryn Gamber, embracing a list of duties that includes distributing the imposing Gamber’s hold-up play to the active winger corps.
Julia is a consummate defensive midfielder most at home as a shield to the back four. When games get stretched, Julia is most likely to hover near the defense to tidily cut out passes and be physical with opposing attackers, letting her sisters float in the resulting midfield space.
“I really enjoy it because I’m naturally defensively minded,” Julia said. “It’s just something that’s comfortable for me. I guess it’s something natural for me. I don’t like to attack as much, so it comes natural.”
And Kat is more of a hybrid whose main function in the center of the park is as the conduit from defense to attack, charged with seeing the field in possession and getting the overlapping wide players involved.
The feistiest of the Mullaneys (and probably the entire roster), she’s also not shy about leaping vigorously into challenges, as Kara hinted.
“I don’t think there is anybody else I would be more comfortable with to play midfield with,” Kat said. “We kind of know how each other plays, and it’s easier to play off of each other and we work well in the middle. Plus we can be really hard on each other, which kind of helps because it’s easier to criticize your sister and tell them to get back when you need to or to make a better pass.”
Penncrest’s path this season has magnified the Mullaneys’ synergy. The Central League co-champs were already starting a freshman in Shayna Polsky early in the season, but when junior All-Delco defender Carly Dunford suffered a season-ending knee injury against Conestoga, coach Mike Deleo was forced to shuffle the deck.
Polsky was dropped back into central defense to pair with stalwart Sarah Hughes. That forced Kat Mullaney deeper and thrust Kara into a full-time starting role at the attacking midfield spot Kat vacated.
Eight games on from that change and the Mullaney sisters are among a core contingent of Lions who rarely leave the field. The Lions have surrendered just six goals all season on the way to an 18-2 record, the two setbacks by 1-0 margins.
“I think it really just gives everything more of a meaning, and it makes us fight more for the ball, go after it harder because we want to win it for each other,” Julia Mullaney said. “It’s just more enjoyable. I feel like we bond more over it, too.”
A year ago, Penncrest entered the state tournament off a 4-0 loss at the hands of Villa Joseph Marie. They were promptly bounced in the first round of states, 3-0, by Manheim Central on the strength of three first-half goals.
This year, the Lions kept the seven-time district champion Gems to within a goal in the championship game at Methacton last Thursday, which could bode well for an improved result in states.
Even if the journey ends Tuesday, all three sisters expressed gratitude at the unique fortune of having two siblings accompany them on the trip. No one verbalized that appreciation better than the protective big sister.
“It means something more, a little bit more, I think,” Kat said. “If it was just me my senior year going to the district championship, it wouldn’t be as big of a deal. But it’s already a lot on your shoulders when you’re a senior because it’s your last chance to win it, but then having your little sisters on your team, you want to win it for them, too, not just yourself.”