RED HILL >> The St. Basil Academy soccer team’s defenders have a good thing going right now.
Since starting postseason play in late October, the Panthers have played five playoff games and given up a grand total of two goals. The play of St. Basil’s back line, along with keeper Brooke Shissler, is a big reason why the Panthers are in the first state title game in program history.
So, what’s the secret to this fortress-like play in the back? Simply put, it’s continuity.
“We are constantly communicating and for the past three years, it’s been the same four,” senior fullback Jules Gura said. “Team chemistry has a lot to do with it.”
Basil’s back line consists of three seniors and one junior, backed up by Shissler, a senior. Center back Ann Marie Coates is the group’s newcomer, in the sense that the junior is only in her third year with the rest of the defense. For seniors Paulina Storck, Brielle Piecyk and Gura, it’s their fourth season together.
The program as a whole has come a long way in the last four seasons, from not even thinking about the postseason to now heading to Hershey for the AA state final against Mercyhurst Prep at 11a.m. Friday.
In the back, the group has gotten better with every season and more than held its own in AACA play this season.
“We know all our teammates have our back and we trust in each other,” Pieczyk said. “We block out everyone else. Even tonight, those fans on the sideline were crazy-loud but we just tuned them our and we’re just focusing on the game.”
“We’ve played better against better teams,” Coates said. “That really helps us.”
Tuesday’s semifinal against Northwestern Lehigh at Upper Perkiomen High School was a tough test for the Panthers. The Tigers had a couple of good threats up top with decent speed and they forced St. Basil to make sure it stayed home and had all its bases covered.
The trio of Gura, Coates and Pieczyk said they’re usually able to figure out an opponent’s tendencies in the first five or so minutes.
Even with their staggering amount of games together, the defenders are still growing as a group. Each season is different and this year they again had to work up to find themselves on the same page and playing at a high level.
“Once districts hit and everything got crazy, we realized we’re the backs and we have to keep the team going,” Pieczyk said. “We realized every game could be our last game and that’s when we all really stepped up.”
Prior to the semifinals, the Panthers had trailed in each state game they had played. If not for a late goal and a couple fortunate breaks in the penalty shootout in the first round, the team’s season may have ended early. But after giving up a goal, the defense locked up and made sure it wasn’t going to get beat again.
In the quarterfinals, the Panthers had to adjust to an officiating crew from District 3 that was calling a lot of fouls. After giving up a goal off a free kick outside the box, St Basil was able to keep Midd-West from threatening much and played to hold a one-goal lead the entire second half.
“Our physical play gives us an advantage,” Gura said. “I feel like we’re also pretty fast for a defensive back line. A lot of players in the back aren’t usually that fast and we’ve faced and stayed with a lot of fast forwards in the playoffs and the Catholic Academies league so that speed helps us a lot.”
Outside of the 5-foot-10 Gura, a USciences basketball recruit, the Panthers back line isn’t tall but the defenders are still very good at tracking and winning aerial balls. Likewise, the backs play with a physical edge that’s been tough for opponents to match this postseason.
“It takes the refs by surprise, oh my gosh, some of these refs aren’t ready for us,” Pieczyk said. “Our league is so physical and we have to be physical to compete against these teams. When we play teams like this, it’s so different that we have to adjust.”
“(Northwestern Lehigh) had some players that are very good skill-wise, but when you put your body into them, you can knock them off their game a little bit,” Gura said. “That’s something we learned throughout the season.”
“At this point in the season, all the teams we’re going to play are good and they’re going to have a lot of good players,” Coates said. “By being physical, it lets us win 50/50 balls and tackles. I think it can also get into the other’s teams’ heads, which also gives us an advantage.”
Coates’ addition only served to strengthen a solid group. While Gura and Storck are also offensive-minded, Coates and Piecyzk are classic mold center defenders, taking on attackers, fighting for every tackle and clearing the ball from danger when needed.
“Once she got in, we all went ‘OK, this kid’s really good,’” Gura said. “We’ve gotten so close. We’re all best friends; we’re hanging out away from practice and even when we’re not in the season.”
Merychurst Prep, out of Erie, has something St. Basil doesn’t. The Lakers were the state runner-up last season, so they know what it’s like to reach the last game of the season and play at HersheyPark Stadium.
However, most of this postseason run has been uncharted territory for St. Basil. It doesn’t matter who lines up in the other half of the field, the Panthers trust each other and know that all the effort they give is for their teammates on the field or on the bench urging them all on.
“Play for each other, that’s our biggest thing,” Coates said. “Me being the junior, I want to make sure I’m playing with them as long as I possibly can so I go out every game and play as hard as I can for them and the rest of the team.
“I don’t think a lot of teams have the close-ness and the sisterhood we have. I think that’s really important, especially heading into a state championship.”
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