ROYERSFORD >> The Spring-Ford boys soccer program has developed a reputation over the years — for better and worse.
The Rams have made a name as beasts in the regular season and pipsqueaks in the postseason. This year’s Spring-Ford team is out to change that.
The Rams took a significant step to making that so Thursday night with a 3-1 victory over West Chester East in the District 1 Class 4A second round.
Sophomore forward Brandon Duke was on the mark for two goals in a rampant first half for the Rams while junior Brett Gulati scored the back-breaking third goal on a great assist from junior Colin Trainor (two assists) with 13 minutes to play. After looking overmatched through 40 minutes, West Chester East played excellent in the second half and was ignited by the stunning goal of Driss Benslimane on a 35-yard chip of the goalkeeper two minutes into the second half.
It is remarkably Spring-Ford’s first time past the second round of the district playoffs, a fact that weighed heavily on both players and coaches past and present.
“For as good of teams as we’ve had, to not go any farther than this is mind-blowing,” Spring-Ford coach Brent Kissel said. “That 2010 team with Eric Giovagnoli and Anthony Merchant, that was a state title contender-type team. But I think this team is right up there with them. This team has all the tools to go far, a great goalkeeper, solid defense, my forwards, Trainor, Duke and Gulati put it on teams and the midfield with Sal (Ibarra), Johnny (Guimaraes) and Ethan Mossip — from the top down I don’t think there’s a weakness so I’m really excited to see what we can do.”
No. 2 seed Spring-Ford (16-2-3) advanced to the quarterfinals where it will face No. 7 Radnor (a winner over West Chester Henderson Thursday) on Saturday at a time to be determined. No. 15 West Chester East, which defeated Boyertown 3-2 in the first round, saw its season conclude 14-5-1 after earning a share of the Ches-Mont League championship.
After a first-round bye, it was just the right rebound for the Rams after losing the Pioneer Athletic Conference championship game to Perkiomen Valley on Oct. 18 and avoiding the same fate as last year when they lost the PAC final and in their first district game as the No. 6 seed.
“We didn’t let that phase us,” Duke said of the PAC defeat. “There are bigger and better things to win than the PAC final, just one conference. But districts is that (multiplied by) three, to be the best in that would show we’re the best in the PAC, too.”
“They felt what it was like last year to lose in the PACs and then lose to Wissahickon (in districts) and that’s been this motivating factor for us to do something,” Kissel said. “Losing the PAC hurt, but I’ve told them, this is the real playoffs. This is where teams get recognized. And I hope that we can show District 1 that we are deserving of the No. 2 seed.”
Spring-Ford was a house of fire to start with the front 3 of Trainor, Duke and Gulati and midfield trio of Sal Ibarra, Johnny Guimaraes and Ethan Mossip on their games, but had nothing to show for it until Duke ran on to a chipped through ball and fired home under pressure with 10:36 to halftime. He doubled the lead after a great bit of close control by Trainor on the assist with 4:34 until the break.
West Chester East (14-5-1) came out a renewed team in the second half and was rewarded early after Benslimane stole a poor back pass and audaciously lofted a shot over S-F goalkeeper Ray Fortebuono (five saves), who was off his line with the ball up at midfield, to get within 2-1. It was a burst of momentum for the Vikings, who pushed Spring-Ford most of the second half.
“Our coach always says there is always going to be some sort of obstacle and you have to find a way around it,” Duke said.
Spring-Ford put the game to bed when Trainor picked up the ball near midfield on the left and carried forward, spotting Gulati on the far side with the WC East defense playing a high line. Gulati ran on to the soaring cross, let his defender run by it, got a touch and fired home left-footed to the near post with 13:23 remaining.
“I saw a gap between the center backs and I know Brett can find that space if I hit it to him,” Trainor said. “It’s happened before and I know he can do it.”
Having finally cleared the program’s big hurdle, Spring-Ford is hoping for bigger and better things.
“It’s history right there. It’s a great feeling, best team in S-F history,” Trainor said. “What’s next? A district championship, that’s where we want to be headed.”
West Chester East coach Charlie Dodds had plenty of praise for the Rams, as well as his squad for the determination it showed down the stretch.
“(Spring-Ford is) a great team that is going to go far. They have a lot of speed and play good soccer. It’s nice to see teams playing soccer and not just dumping and chasing,” Dodds said. “I’m very proud of my guys. They made it a game and didn’t roll over. You see 3-1, but if you watched it you saw that we pressed them a bit.”
The Vikings featured a strong senior class that included Benjamin Delaney, Brendan Merten, Rich Mullineaux, goalkeeper Clint Rehrig (two saves), Chris Ryan, Patrick Stelmach, Michael Usilton, Cormac Dooley and Dylan Golden.
“We have great leadership from our seniors,” Dodds said. “We’ve been battle-tested the past couple of weeks – we had Avon Grove and had to win for a chance to win the league and we came back to win in overtime; we played Boyertown the other night, went down 2-1 and score with 1:30 to go then another in overtime. After we got our first one, I thought, ‘Oh, here we come again.’ These kids didn’t quit.”
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