MIDDLETOWN >> Nothing has ever stopped Grace Harding in her pursuit for athletic excellence, whether it’s on a basketball court or a lacrosse field.
The Penncrest senior is the catalyst of the lacrosse team’s push to a district championship. Harding scored three goals, including the game-winner, in the Lions’ 16-13 decision over No. 14 Springfield (Montco) in the opening round of the District 1 Class 2A tournament. Third-seeded Penncrest is back in action Thursday at 6 p.m. when it hosts No. 11 Upper Moreland in the quarterfinal round.
Harding has started every game since her freshman year. Due to her talent and contributions in multiple sports at Penncrest, she has earned 11 varsity letters.
Not bad for a kid who was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at a young age.
“I was diagnosed two days before sixth grade started, so I’ve had it for a little while now,” Harding said. “Now it’s just like my normal life. I guess it’s different because I have to worry about checking my blood sugar before every game and make sure everything is fine. Not everyone else has to do that.”
Harding has never allowed the chronic condition to deter her progress in sports or the classroom. You wouldn’t know by watching her take charge on the field that she has battled with the symptoms associated with diabetes for years.
In 2016, Harding had already given her verbal commitment to continue her lacrosse career at Drexel University. And she was a four-year standout power forward/center for the Lions basketball team that qualified for the District 1 tournament in her final two seasons.
“I try not to have it be a whole (big) thing,” she said. “I have learned to live with it every day. The more stable I am, the better I can perform.”
Well, Harding performed to her usual high expectations in Monday’s tournament opener. While she was relatively quiet in the first half, Harding took over when the Lions needed her the most. The second half was a back-and-forth affair until Harding, off a draw control, sprinted 50 yards and fired the go-ahead goal past Spartan goalie Annie Ryan (eight saves). Springfield quickly got even on the scoreboard, but Harding had the answer, scoring her second tie-breaking goal with 13:53 to play in regulation. Her third and final tally of the afternoon was the most impactful, a decider for the game. Juliana George added a pair of insurance goals for the Lions.
Unfortunately, moments after Harding put the Lions in front for good, she was whistled for a dangerous follow-through, her second card of the game. That meant the Lions were forced to hold on without their top scorer.
“I am taller, obviously, than most girls, whether it be on the court or the field,” Harding said. “Sometimes I feel like, maybe the officials will see that I am bigger than most girls and I must be doing something to the other team when in fact it could just be my strength.”
Harding knows only one way to play — full-speed ahead.
“Sometimes it puts us at a disadvantage, but I don’t let it affect me and I keep playing my game,” Harding said.
Thankfully for the Lions, they had other players step up and produce big time. George, maybe the smallest player on the field, was a dynamo for the Lions. She scored a team-high five goals, including back-to-back goals once Harding was sidelined for the rest of the match.
“Of course I didn’t want to sit out the rest of this game,” Harding said, “but I have confidence in my girls.”
The fleet-footed, diminutive George, a junior attack bound for Virginia Commonwealth, played lockdown defense and continuously provided a spark to the Lions’ offense.
“I try to help my team out, encourage them, and being able to play different positions helps,” George said. “I just hope we work well as a team. We’re all out there together and we want to win.”
Penncrest was in dire straits early in the first half. Buoyed by the outstanding play of Lindsey Smith and Emily Walsh, the Spartans scored five straight goals and led 6-1 midway through the half.
“We knew we had the whole game left and had plenty of time,” George said. ‘We weren’t really worried because we’re a good team and we know how to play through the hard times together.”
Carly Baillis had a nice game for the Lions, posting three goals and two assists. Sadie King also notched a hat trick, while Kenna Kaut chipped in with two goals and an assist. Defensively, Carys Dougherty, Jen Peyton, Logan O’Donnell and Moira Ward excelled at faceguarding the Spartans’ top scorers and forcing turnovers. Goalie Corryn Gamber hung tough in net and finished with five saves.
Smith and Walsh scored five goals apiece for Springfield.
Penncrest has had a banner season for the program. After years of mediocrity in the ultra-competitive Central League, the Lions have proved they can beat the best. They have wins against Garnet Valley and Conestoga, perennial state title contenders. There’s no question, Penncrest has pieces to make a deep run in the playoffs.
“I feel like we’re a different team this year,” Harding said. “This is our year — we can just feel it. We all encourage each other and we believe in each other, right from the start. Especially after beating Garnet Valley and some of the big name teams like that, we just knew we could have something special this year.”
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