PENNSBURG >> The Upper Perkiomen boys soccer program isn’t exactly used to playing games with playoff implications in the second week of October.
Yet there was Upper Perk Tuesday night at home, hosting a game against the defending league champions — the ones it had defeated earlier in the season — with a genuine shot at the Pioneer Athletic Conference Frontier Division championship.
As for Phoenixville, the feel-good story of underdog, upstart Upper Perk didn’t interest it much.
The Phantoms dampened the Indians’ spirits with two goals from Kender Perez and a backbreaking goal from JT Stevens late in the first half en route to a 4-1 victory to take the driver seat in the race for the PAC Frontier title.
Clay Kopko sealed the game with a majestic header from a Ryan Cowan corner kick in the second half to see Phoenixville improve to 7-1-1 in the Frontier, 8-3-1 PAC and 11-4-2 overall. Sean Clark had a pair of assists.
“It was a really good team effort today,” said senior midfielder Stevens. “We played well defensively, giving up only one goal instead of the two we gave up last game against them. It was a big defensive effort and we got the offense going with Kender, who played really well today.”
It sets up a winner-take-all match with Pottsgrove (6-2-1, 6-5-1, 9-6-2) — 3-2 winner over Upper Merion Tuesday — on Thursday. A Pottsgrove win would give the Falcons the division on head-to-head tiebreaker after the teams tied in their first meeting.
Upper Perkiomen fell to 5-3, 6-5, 9-7, but the loss doesn’t dampen the huge surprise the Tribe have been this fall.
Head coach Kyle Fisher’s bunch has been a bottom-half Frontier Division team in recent history. But this season, with senior captains Tyler Raymond and Mike Sitko, senior forward Ian Costanzo and sophomore midfielder Cole Kendra leading the way, Upper Perk has experienced a reawakening. While the PAC playoffs aren’t in their future, the District 1-3A playoffs are. They are ranked No. 5 in the power rankings after Tuesday.
“I don’t think any of us expected to come out and perform as well as we have,” defender Raymond said. “I think we knew we’d perform, but I don’t think any of us expected to be in contention for the top spot in our division.
“I think we’ve even surprised ourselves as well as everyone else. We’ve gotten a lot more support from our school fan-wise so it’s been a really good senior year.”
“I think all the players understand how we play together,” Sitko said. “We know how to play off each other.”
The Tribe got on the scoreboard first on a quality long ball behind the defense from sophomore defender Jack Cupitt down the right side. Austin Dunar ran on and finished it across goal for the 1-0 UP lead in the 13th minute. But Perez, who carried a threat down the right side, won a scrum that led to a goal six minutes later then was the beneficiary of a defensive mistake with 11 minutes until halftime.
The real backbreaker came with 1:13 to halftime when Kopko, a junior center back with great ability and license to roam, played a short throw-in to Clark, who made a smart turn in the penalty area and played a ball toward goal that ricocheted out but only the Stevens near the top of the 18. But the Phantoms’ top midfielder smashed a volley to the right for a 3-1 lead that largely decided the contest.
The additional juice from losing to Upper Perk the first meeting didn’t hurt the Phantoms.
“We were really amped up. We watched film the other day of the last game we played against them and we did not play well,” Stevens said. “It was a big game for PAC Final Four and districts so we had a lot of passion and were really focused. We really wanted to get the win and it showed through.”
Phoenixville was something of the surprise story last fall when a strong senior class led by midfielder Kyle Tucker, last fall’s Mercury All-Area Player of the Year who is now at Drexel, became the second small-school division team to raise the PAC plaque. Coincidentally, the first was Upper Perkiomen in 2003 in the first year of the league’s two-division format.
Now, they wouldn’t mind doing it again.
“Last year we had a lot of key pieces go, but I feel like last year during practice and games, our role players got in and got a lot of experience and I feel like they’re showing what they learned and that they can contribute to the team,” Kopko said.
“It’s really been seamless because we have such a good cast. It’s definitely been fun,” Stevens said.