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Bouncing ball ‘gyps’ Penncrest in loss to Fleetwood

HAMBURG >> Soccer can be an unfair game. Ask Bryn McLaughlin, the Penncrest goalkeeper who was outstanding Tuesday night in the frigid rain at Hamburg Area High School, who seemed to have no earthy business getting her Lions to extra time as a volley from Fleetwood’s Kenzie Henninger fizzled her way with 90 seconds left in regulation.

You’ll get a nicer answer from Fleetwood forward Alexis Schoener, who for more than 100 minutes was shackled by the Penncrest defense in the PIAA Class 3A opener. But in one hopeful ball into the box, one whim of the post and a few revolutions of a ball skittering on the wet turf, those merit-based resolutions went out the window.

Schoener produced the difference-making moment in double-overtime, her glancing header of a Sarah Oxenreider free kick bouncing twice past a sprawling McLaughlin, careening off the post then off an unaware McLaughlin with a little English to get just over the goal line and send Fleetwood to a 1-0 win.

“I saw the ball coming in, and me and Ox haven’t connected on a free kick header into the goal yet this season,” a jubilant Schoener said. “I was like, this is going to be it right here. I just kind of flicked it off my head, and when I saw it hit off the post, I was like, ‘oooh’. And then I turned around and watched the keeper hit it in, and I was like, ‘OK I just did that.’”

The marker is Schoener’s 31st of the season, sending the District 3 champs (23-1) toward what they hope will be a third straight appearance in the PIAA semis. But for the first hour-plus of the game, Schoener was largely muted by the central defense pairing of Sarah Hughes and Shayna Polsky, who extinguished fire after fire.

Corner kicks were even at seven, but Penncrest fired eight shots on target to the five by Fleetwood, plus a pair blocked in the six-yard box and a strike off the post by Corryn Gamber. All that was missing was the final touch. And a wide disparity in foul calls against the dogged midfield work of Julia and Kat Mullaney didn’t help, either.

“I really believe that the better team got gypped in this game,” Penncrest defender Katie Sparling said. “We had a lot of the chances. We didn’t, unfortunately, finish them, but that’s what comes with the game of soccer. It goes from one side to the other.”

Penncrest (18-3) made states for a second consecutive year. Last year’s setback to Manheim Township was settled at half, where the 3-0 margin stood as the final.

This time around, the atmosphere was notably looser and more upbeat.

“I think we had more confidence this year,” Julia Mullaney said. “Going into states last year, we realized we’re just as good as any team and we can do great things. And I think we just went harder this year because we had more confidence in ourselves.”

Penncrest’s fate would’ve been sealed in regulation had it not been for McLaughlin, who has allowed only six goals this season. Henninger lashed a perfect volley from 25 yards out that was ticketed for the far post with 90 seconds to play, but McLaughlin leapt at a full, trading-card-pose stretch to bat it around the post, one of her four saves.

Her opposite number, Riley Scepansky, was busier. She denied Gamber when the 22-goal forward galloped into space and picked out the far post in the first half, a roller slowed by the tackiness of the turf just enough for Scepansky to get a hand to it.

In the beginning of the first overtime period, Gamber launched a shot from distance that spurred Scepansky’s most spectacular save of the night. Then a moment later, a vigilant Scepansky punched a Gamber volley safely over the bar. Gamber also made something out of nothing in the closing minutes of regulation, waltzing in behind the defense and pinging a through ball first-time off the post.

Penncrest’s final touch remained absent, and when the pendulum swung back the Tigers’ way in the second overtime, it proved to be the final switch. Rebekah Earnest skied a pass smartly squared near the penalty spot by Sarah Crissman early in the second extra session, a salient warning shot. Oxenreider looped the first free kick, awarded incorrectly after Julia Mullaney cleanly won a challenge. Two subsequent iffy calls kept the ball hemmed into the Penncrest’s defensive third, which allowed Schoener to take her star turn and for Penncrest to feel the crushing blow of defeat.

“I tried to flick it onto the goal, just because why not take our chance there?,” Schoener said. “I had no idea how much time was left. It was just heat of the moment; we were going to go for it. When I saw where it was placed, I was like, ‘this is going to be good.’”

“Obviously there’s a lot more emotion in losing,” Sparling said, fighting back tears. “But this season was one of the best. Obviously it’s sad the seniors are leaving. But we really brought it up and played our best. And we got gypped at the end. I guess that’s what happens.”

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