LOWER POTTSGROVE >> Pottsgrove is back in the Pioneer Athletic Conference boys soccer playoffs after a 1-0 win over defending champion Phoenixville Thursday night that earned the Falcons the Frontier Division championship.
Ethan Pace scored off a pass from Collin Deckert less than a minute into the second half to pull the host Falcons (7-2-1 Frontier, 7-5-1 PAC, 10-6-2 overall) into a tie for first place with the Phantoms (7-2-1, 8-4-1, 11-5-2). Pottsgrove, which tied Phoenixville 1-1 earlier in the season, won the title on the basis of the head-to-head tie-breaker.
The Falcons had qualified for the PAC playoffs 10 years in a row before failing to make the field last season.
“It’s been an emphasis for us,” Pottsgrove coach Jay Wikowski concerning a return to the playoffs. “We had been on top of the division for a long time. Last year, they (the Phantoms) had an excellent team. Our guys showed a lot of heart to do so.”
“That was our whole goal,” said junior forward Pace. “It feels great. This whole team wants to win. That was our goal last year. We were upset that we didn’t win it.”
In the process, the Falcons denied entry for the PAC defending champions Phoenixville.
Deckert made a strong move down the right and crossed a pass along the turf to left near the goal and Pace knocked it home 58 seconds into the second half.
“I’m glad the field was slippery,” said Pace. “It skipped over his (the Phantom defender’s) leg. I took a touch and just fired it. I’ve got to put the team on my back.”
Then, as it turned out, the Falcons had to hang on to the slim advantage for the next 39 minutes. The Phantoms nearly tied it with one minute left when Clay Kopko, up from center back as the Phantoms chased the game, put a blast on net from straight away, but Pottsgrove goalkeeper Luke Kaiser made a diving save to his left.
“I didn’t want to go into a shell,” said Witkowski, whose team had an 8-3 edge in shots on goal and an 8-5 advantage on corner kicks. “I did want to play a little more defensive. We didn’t have any breakdowns. Our midfield was winning balls and getting it to our wings and forwards. Our backfield was winning balls in the air and scrapping to get it back.”
“I kept looking at the clock and there were double-digit minutes,” said Pace. “They fought us. They fought us. They hustled every ball.”
Phoenixville had some good chances in the second half besides the last-minute shot. Doug Smith put a shot on goal from right out in front with 20 minutes left, but Kaiser darted to his left and made a jumping catch to preserve the lead.
Then the visitors broke down the field with four minutes to go, but Deckert stepped into the middle and came away with the ball.
For Pottsgrove, Pace put two long balls on the frame in the first half, but Phantom goalkeeper Gavin Perillo got a hand on the first one and knocked it over the goal and the second was tipped and deflected off the crossbar.
With the loss, Phoenixville failed to make the PAC playoffs, ending up tied for the second wild card spot with Boyertown based on overall league record, but losing the district power ranking tie-breaker to the Bears.
“We were not coming into this game healthy at all and I think it kind of showed,” said Phantom coach Mike Cesarski, whose team had gone 8-0-2 in its previous 10 outings. “We had a rough patch toward the first half of the season. A couple of results hurt us. Now we have to look forward to districts.”
Pottsgrove will face Perkiomen Valley and Spring-Ford will play Boyertown in the PAC semifinals on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Owen J. Roberts.
NOTES >> Aided by defenders Shane Gleason, Cooper Fiore and Justin Collings, Pottsgrove goalkeeper Luke Kaiser needed three saves for the shutout. Phoenixville keeper Perillo had seven saves. … Phoenixville was without junior forward Kender Perez, who had two goals in Tuesday’s 4-1 win over Upper Perkiomen. … Former Pottsgrove standout Ethan Abdalla, who went on to play at Lebanon Valley College, was on the sidelines – with Phoenixville. A 2014 Pottsgrove grad, Abdalla is a JV assistant for the Phantoms this fall.