HERSHEY >> It was not the ending St Basil Academy’s soccer team had scripted for itself.
The Panthers, who already made so much history this season, intended to add one more chapter to the story on Friday in the PIAA Class 2A final. In a way, they had just by taking the field at HersheyPark Stadium in the program’s first-ever state title game, but like any competitors, they wanted the trophy and chocolate bar that come with a championship.
It took a special goal by Mercyhurst Prep’s Claire Johnson, but the Lakers came out on top 1-0, leaving St. Basil a goal short of their ultimate objective.
“Ever since we were freshman, in every single game, every single practice, whatever it was, everybody put their all into it 100 percent and played for everybody who was next to them,” Panthers senior Jules Gura said. “To come this far and lose, it kind of sucks and everyone’s a little down on themselves but we know this is an accomplishment and a milestone and we have to be happy about that.”
The match was fairly even between St. Basil, the District 1/12 champion and District 10 champion Mercyhurst Prep. Last season, the Lakers lost in Hershey in the final game of the season, so they too had their own goals to finish the year on top.
All season, St. Basil played as a collective, a team without a true standout player but a lot of really good ones who were on the same page. Some, like senior Julia Harkins, sacrificed by accepting a role off the bench others like seniors Cheryl Remolde or Brielle Piecyk took the less glamorous roles, senior keeper Brooke Shissler (four saves) helped shape a great defense and the Panthers were always looking for the open player in attack.
“It’s a disappointing end but the way we got here and the way they played, you’ll never forget that,” Panthers coach Bob Opalka said. “I give them all the credit in the world. After things ended last year, this is where they decided they wanted to be and they got here.”
Mercyhurst Prep scored in the 47th minute when Johnston hit a perfect ball from 35 yards that had the right amount of curl and dip to nestle into the back of the net.
The ending will likely take a few days to get over for the players, especially the 12 seniors on the roster, but even in defeat they knew they had done something special. From their freshman season when they were looked at as an almost sure victory by every opponent to playing on the final day of the season four years later, the Panthers have come a long way.
It was for that reason, among others, that senior Erin Gilsenan gutted through a knee injury to be on the field. After being hurt in the second half of the state semifinal on Tuesday, Gilsenan donned a cumbersome brace on Friday and gave her team what she could, knowing they would do the same for her.
“It means everything, my freshman year everyone down-casted us and though were nothing more than try-hards but this is what we’ve for our entire four years and always wanted,” Gilsenan said. “We play for each other. We’re all each other’s best friends and all we wanted was this for each other and for the school. It’s my last game ever and I did everything possible. It wasn’t the best, but I tried.”
The Panthers had the better chances in the first half, but they couldn’t seem to capture that same bit of magic that had helped them score clutch goals in the first three rounds. Playing on the biggest surface they had all season inside the Concrete Palace had its challenges, but junior Sophia Mahoney also credited the skill of the opposition.
“The wind was a huge factor but it’s always hard when a lot of our forwards’ movement is on through balls and there’s just four defenders waiting for you the second you turn around,” Mahoney said. “You either get the perfect through ball or you take a far-out shot With our shots, the wind is taking it every single time.”
Considering the Panthers were just 1:43 away from being bounced in the first round of states this season, their run was truly remarkable. It also wasn’t a one-year wonder squad, the players worked the last three or four years to make themselves capable of playing into November.
“It’s a really good program and a lot of credit goes to Jack Kilroy, who was the one who really put this team on the map again and put these kids on the road,” Opalka, who took over as head coach during the season last fall, said. “I feel a little bit saddened but also honored I could bring them here. They caught on and just kept driving, driving and driving. The way the play the game is the way it should be played.”
Gura, a starting guard on St Basil’s highly-successful basketball team and a USciences recruit, said what she accomplished on the soccer field ranks right up with any of her hardwood exploits. There’s a sense of immense pride in all the upperclassmen but moreso at a smaller, tight-knit school like St. Basil.
The Panthers had a large section of classmates in the stands on Friday and Mahoney said not only did the team appreciate the support, but it made the match feel even bigger. Even after the final horn, the St. Basil fans line the fence, sharing hugs and encouragement with the players.
“We’re probably going to go into school on Monday and everybody’s going to be cheering as if we did win,” Gura said. “Everyone on our team will probably go ‘come on, guys,’ but they always have our back and as a team we’ve always had each other’s backs.”
Losing the 12 seniors, nine of them starters, means the Panthers will be a different team next season. But the returners, like Mahoney, junior defender Ann Marie Coates and junior forwards Cara Hughes and Delaney Gayton are willing to keep working to maintain the program’s standard.
Opalka noted the program got a good group of freshmen this season and with state playoff appearances in back-to-back seasons, he hoped it would continue to pique interest.
“They have to want it for themselves and want it for each other, that’s such a key part of why we were so successful,” Gilsenan said. “It’s all about working as a team and not relying on one sole player.”
“I’m just so proud of my team. We’ve been through so much on and off the field and although it’s not the ending we wanted, it’s still a happy ending to make it this far,” Mahoney said. “We have to use this and getting this far and not finishing it as our motivation.”
As they headed toward the bus for their ride home, the Panthers had the look of a team still dejected by how things ended. At some point, those feelings will pass and the team that had gone further than any other before it can focus on the positives, and there will be many of them.
“Right now, we’re going to be down on it,” Gura said. “But eventually, we’ll all be able to look back and think about how we did all this.”
MERCYHURST PREP 1, ST. BASIL ACADEMY 0
MERCYHURST PREP 0 1 – 1
ST BASIL ACADEMY 0 0 – 0
Goals: MP – Claire Johnson.
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