RED HILL >> It was the St. Basil girls soccer team’s first-ever PIAA semifinal, but really the Panthers had already been there before.
“I just think when the game gets tight, we have a lot of veteran players out there who have seen this, who know what to do,” St. Basil coach Bob Opalka said. “They don’t panic.”
It was another close, defensive contest for the Panthers at Upper Perkiomen High School and just as St. Basil did in the previous two rounds, it found a way to keep moving on. And Tuesday night, that meant earning a spot in the state championship game.
Senior Lauren Baldo knocked in a cross from classmate Erin Gilsenan at the left post at 33:36 in the second half and the District 1/11 champ Panthers held off Northwestern Lehigh from there, edging the District 11 champ Tigers 1-0 in their PIAA Class 2A semifinal.
“It’s a dream come true,” Panthers senior Paulina Storck said. “We’ve been looking forward to this since freshman year. It’s amazing.”
— Mike Cabrey (@mpcabrey) November 14, 2017
St. Basil advances to face Mercyhurst Prep for the state title 11 a.m. Friday at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey. The District 10 champ Lakers — who hail from Erie — reached their second-consecutive 2A final with a 1-0 win over District 5 champ Bradford Tuesday.
Mercyhurst lost to Trinity last year in the final but did win the PIAA 2A crown in 2010. For the Panthers, meanwhile, playing for a state title is something totally new for the program.
“How does this make us feel — we’re not sure, we’re never been here before,” Opalka said. “This, we thought we could of done it last year. We played a good Lake-Lehman team that caught us (in the quarterfinals). This year, these girls started well in the summer, just started training. When they hit camp this year, they were a fit as I’ve ever seen them in the years that I’ve been here. And they’ve just wanted it. They kept their eye on it the whole way.
“I told them, I said when we started the season and they do those preseason things, they asked me what our goal was I said to finish a little bit better in our league cause our league is tough, the (AACA) is a difficult league and I said and to win states, all right, which is a recipe, by the way, for eating crow. But they never, ever, ever doubted that they could do this.”
Northwestern Lehigh was again denied its first-ever trip to a state final by a AACA school, having falling to Villa Joseph Marie in the 2014 2A semis.
It was the third shutout for St. Basil in five postseason games but the first in the PIAA Tournament. The Panthers won the District 1/12 regional by outscoring Furness and New Hope-Solebury by a combined 15-0 before making it to Hershey with three much-closer contests in states. In the first round, St. Basil topped District 11 champ Palisades in penalties kick after a 1-1 tie and rallied past District 4 champ Midd-West 2-1 in the quarterfinals before earning another one-goal victory Tuesday night.
“One goal and then hang on, it’s not good for the heart, all right, that much I can say. It is not good for the heart,” Opalka said. “But boy, I’ll tell you, I’m just so proud of this team. I really am.”
Baldo’s game-winner off her shoulder in the 47th minute may not have been the most aesthetically pleasing goal, but it got the job done. And it was set up by the hustle of Gilsenan, who got the ball away from a Tiger defender trying to shield it out for a goal kick to the right of the 18-yard box. Gilsenan — who left the game with an injury at 25:59 — then made a run down the end line before delivering a ball to a waiting Baldo, who knocked it in at the far left post.
“I saw it coming across, I knew I couldn’t get it with my head or bring up the ball with my foot so I tapped it with my shoulder,” Baldo said. “Thought that was my only option at that point.”
— Mike Cabrey (@mpcabrey) November 14, 2017
The goal came the way Opalka had been imploring his team to attack after a scoreless opening 40 minutes.
“At halftime, we told them get the ball down to the byline, I said we can turn that defense,” he said. “And Erin got down there and I’m still trying to figure out how she got that ball through, all right, but she did. And Lauren always crashed from that left side and I knew once Lauren was there that ball was in the net.”
With Baldo giving it the lead, St. Basil did not give Northwestern Lehigh many openings to get an equalizer, the Panthers doing a solid job of maintaining possession in the Tigers’ half of the field
“Sophia Mahoney was finding the gaps and every time we cleared the ball it seemed to get on her foot somehow,” Opalka said. “And I mean, we’re smart enough to fill those things and to try to pick the ball up. And our girls, they bomb it up the field sometimes but the other times they really look for somebody that they can make the pass to, to turn the ball around.
“And Sophia did a great job, if you want to call it a defensive offensive player, that’s what she was in the last 15 minutes of the game.”
Northwestern Lehigh’s best chances to score came before Baldo’s goal with both opportunities coming from Sara Hathaway. In the first half, the Tigers junior forward got behind the Panthers defense in the 11th minute but her blast was directed right at St. Basil goalkeeper Brooke Shissler for the save. Four minutes after halftime, Hathaway got some space to let off a shot, but the effort was sent wide right.
“They kind of kept that one girl up top the whole time, so we were just focusing on man-marking her and then we kept another girl in the back just kind of sweeping to clear anything extra out we couldn’t get,” Storck said. “So, I mean, our defense is amazing and they can get to anything.”
Tuesday night, getting to anything meant the Panthers are getting the chance at a state title.
“It’s been that way since day one, everyone’s been focused on this,” Opalka said. “And for it to turn out the way that it’s turned out, it’s a magic carpet ride for crying out loud.”