BUCKTOWN >> There was nothing ‘half’ about it.
Not Bailey Hunt’s strike. And not the Owen J. Roberts girls soccer team’s performance.
Senior outside forward Hunt’s 25-yard hit to the far post in the first half was all the scoring the Wildcats would require as their prolific defense lived up to its billing as Owen J. Roberts defeated Spring-Ford, 1-0, to go back-to-back as Pioneer Athletic Conference champions Thursday night at OJR.
“It’s crazy, I don’t even know how to explain the feeling,” Hunt said. “Our team always says ‘Hit the half chances’ and I guess I just did it.”
After last season’s milestones of winning the PAC championship and reaching the PIAA Class 4A semifinals, a fitting encore had an especially high degree of difficulty. But the current Wildcats are undefeated (19-0-1), retained the conference championship and could have a long postseason ahead.
“They’re a phenomenal team,” senior midfielder Kylee MacLeod said of Spring-Ford, “so it’s not like we were coming in thinking it was going to be easy. We came in here knowing it might come with a few scars, a bloody nose but we knew we could do it together. We’ve done it before.”
It was OJR’s 12th PAC championship and 5th in the Final Four era. It also turned the table on Spring-Ford after the Rams won their championship faceoff in 2016.
It starts with the defense, which kept its stunning mark of allowing just two goals on the season in tact. With the outstanding MacLeod providing the cover, the back line of seniors Kenzie Milne and Brinley Beveridge, freshman Mo Weaver and the left back rotation of Shaylan Cobb, Gretchen Harken and Emily Sands kept the Rams largely at bay.
“We really unite and have worked on our shape a lot,” Milne said.
While many games this season sophomore goalkeeper Samantha Hughes hasn’t been called heavily into action, that wasn’t the case against Spring-Ford.
Hughes commanded her area well and had six saves, including a superb full-stretch, one-handed save on an Ella Curry left-footed shot from center with four minutes to play.
“Sammie has been amazing,” Milne said. “That one save was literally amazing.”
“She’s so calm,” MacLeod said. “She doesn’t have a doubt in her mind.”
Along with Hunt’s golden moment in the 23rd minute, OJR’s other best chance was a 45-yard free kick from Milne that forced Spring-Ford goalkeeper Riley Wallace (four saves) into a nice tip save.
The Rams upped the pressure heavily in the late stages: if the goal frame counted, Spring-Ford would be champions. Curry hit the crossbar on an excellent shot from 25 yards with 32 minutes to play and senior center back Claire Sites had a header from a corner kick tick the left post with 2:36 left that served as the Rams’ last quality chance to force overtime.
“I’m very proud of the kids, very proud of the overall team defending that we had,” OJR head coach Joe Margusity said. “That last 10 minutes when they really started to go direct, we held our composure for the most part but a couple mental breakdowns helped them get some real chances.
“I believe this might be the best defense, even better than 2005, that Owen J. has had. The triangle of Kylee MacLeod, Brinley and Mo, you can’t break us down in the middle. And if you play over top of us, all four backs are super fast and super smart.”
A big deal was made of last year’s OJR senior class, especially PAC-record scorer Mahogany Willis and former All-State defender Kylie Cahill. The Wildcats haven’t missed a beat with a truly collective approach that starts with a senior group that includes three-year starters MacLeod and Milne, plus Mia Baumgarten, Beveridge, Hunt, Harken, Cobb, plus reserves Simone Karustis, McKenna Johnson and Cassidy Skilton.
“They truly play for each other. There’s no relying on one player,” head coach Joe Margusity said. “Last year when Mahogany got the ball we kinda stood around and watched her do her magic, which was understandable. This time, everybody’s working. I think we complement each other much better than we did last year, as far as the pieces fitting together.”
Having been there before paid off too with another raising of the PAC championship plaque.
“I think all of us are really settled when we’re playing,” Hunt said. ‘We don’t get hyper, only once in a great while. Most of the time we’re really steady in our play.”
“You sometimes don’t realize how well you’re doing until here we are (in the championship),” MacLeod said. “This is what we came for and why we’re here. And now to do it … it’s all there.”
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