EAST MARLBOROUGH – They call the playoffs the second season – and on Tuesday, Unionville and Penn Wood showed exactly how the postseason is usually so different from the regular season.
These two first met back in the season opener, but the rematch was in round one of the District 1 4A Boys Soccer Playoffs. And even though the host Indians won them both, Tuesday’s taut 1-0 decision was much more intense, more physical and more competitive than what transpired back on August 31st.
“Give (Penn Wood) a lot of credit because they had a lot of energy. But it’s the playoffs, and we knew that was going to happen,” said Unionville head coach Rich Garber.
“This was so different,” added senior forward Tom Kelly. “First of all, the seniors know it could be their last game if we don’t win. So everyone is putting their bodies on the line, it’s a faster pace and super-physical.”
In the opening 11 minutes of action, Kelly wound up notching the only goal of the evening. But it was a battle for the entire 80 minutes of action. Now 14-4-1, the ninth-seeded Indians advance to round two and will travel to No. 8 Harriton on Thursday.
“This was a good test for us,” Garber said. “(Penn Wood) busted their tail the whole game and fought. They put us under a lot of pressure, but that’s what the playoffs are all about.”
The Patriots (12-7 overall) won the Del Val League title for the fifth time in the last six years, but received the 24th and final spot in the district field. And despite falling 3-0 in the first meeting, Penn Wood gave Unionville all it could handle the second time around.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the effort our kids gave,” said Pats head coach Al Poplawski. “It was a matter on inches in this one.
“(Unionville) got the one goal and then they held on because my boys were coming at them. Our kids played their hearts out.”
In all, Penn Wood outshot the Indians 9-7, but was playing from behind most of the way after Unionville’s Kyle Lyons delivered a perfect cross-field pass ahead to Kelly, who managed to get behind the Patriots’ defense.
“Kyle swung in a great ball, I was able to spring an offside trap, got in, left-footed it and finished,” Kelly said of his goal at the 29:12 mark.
“We try to play through (Kelly) a bit and he works real hard,” Garber added. “He’s had a very good second half of the season.”
The Indians had three more great scoring chances in the second half, but were unable to connect. About 10 minutes in, Unionville’s Mason Draxton had an open net from a bad angle, but his shot bounced off the near post. It went straight to teammate Thomas Smiddy, but Pat’s keeper Luseni Nyei got back into position to make the save.
Midway through the second period, Kelly followed up a breakaway by Kyle Ketterer, but his shot to an open net was deflected by a defender. And finally, with just 4:06 left, Sam Price came close to making it 2-0, but Nyei’s kick save managed to steer it away.
“We had some open nets and somehow we made sure we didn’t get them in,” Garber joked. “But it happens.”
Penn Wood’s best chance to break the scoring drought came with just under eight minutes on the clock. Junior James Nmah got his head on a crossing pass in the box but Indians’ goaltender Alex Dolce was there to stop it.
“We have a couple new guys this season and we had to learn how to play together,” Poplawski said. “The first time we played (Unionville), we gave up a couple soft goals. I felt pretty good about coming back out here. Heck, we just took Strath Haven apart (6-1) last week and they are a number two seed.
“From the moment we stepped on the field they were absolutely focused on playing this game the right way. You saw it with our passing, and how we moved the ball. Plus, our back line held.”
For the Indians, it was another outstanding effort by its defensive corps. Dolce turned aside nine shots and Unionville notched its 12th shutout of the season.
“We have to be better in the midfield because it’s putting too much pressure on our back four, but they’ve been solid all year,” Garber pointed out.
“Ever since we played Conestoga (Unionville’s only loss since Sept. 17th), everything is starting to click for us,” said junior defender Garrett Pinkston. “Every game is a battle, but we’re ready. We communicate, we always have each other’s backs and we work as a unit.”
Unionville 1, Penn Wood 0
Penn Wood 0
Penn Wood goals: none
Unionville goal: Kelly.
Goalie saves: Nyei (PW) 6; Dolce (U) 9.
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