HAMBURG, Pa. – District 1 champion Villa Joseph Marie (VJM) started off slow against District 3 rival Lower Dauphin in its PIAA Class AAA semifinal battle Tuesday, Nov. 14 at Hamburg Area High School.
In the first 15 minutes, it was the Falcons who were generating some quality scoring chances. Behind the Lower Dauphin bench, you could hear an exasperated Falcon coach yell, “we’re knocking on the prison walls, but we’ve got to knock down the prison door.”
Thanks to a stiff Jems’ defense that produced its 15th shutout in 23 games, the Falcons never did break down that door as Villa Jo blanked LD, 1-0, on the strength of a lone goal in the 25th minute by senior Megan O’Neill.
“The way that we were playing tonight, it wasn’t the prettiest soccer that we’ve ever played,” admitted VJM head coach Rich Finneyfrock. “Soccer is a funny game; it really is.
“Some games you dominate and you end up losing. And other games, you play a little bit weaker and you end up winning.”
For their efforts, the Jems advance to their fourth consecutive state final, a riddle that Villa Jo has yet to solve as VJM has come up short in its past three state championship battles. The Jems will go up against District 7 champion Moon Area, a 7-1 winner over D10 champ Villa Maria, at 4 p.m. Saturday at Hershey Park Stadium.
The Tigers enter the title tilt unbeaten at 25-0 and are the clear favorite to win. Moon Area topped Villa Jo 2-1 in last year’s state championship.
“Moon is going to be tough; they are definitely the favorite,” said Finneyfrock. “They’ve been on a roll all year. I know they’re undefeated. Most of their games are three, four, five goals difference.
“They have an outstanding team so we have our work cut out for us again.”
In the semifinal, Lower Dauphin came out with ton of energy – as opposed to the Jems.
“They were quicker to the ball and they outhustled us,” admitted Finneyfrock. “They were one pass way from breaking through; there’s no doubt about it.”
It was that final third of the field, where the Falcons broke down. And that has everything to do with the Villa Jo defense.
At the heart of the Jems’ defense in this one were center-backs senior Erica Behr and sophomore Paige Santoro. Behr is the grizzled veteran and she did what she’s done all year and beyond.
But before states, Santoro hadn’t seen significant minutes all year long. When junior back Tara Schmidt was lost to a bout with mono, however, Santoro was asked to step in to the PIAA quarterfinal battle with District 3 runner-up East Pennsboro. And Santoro has filled that role admirably, said Finneyfrock.
“In the (state) quarterfinal, we asked her to step up and play in a key position. But, again, the kids are ready to do that.
“And she did a really nice job.
“She has done outstanding, her and Erica communicated really well.
Offensively, Villa Jo owes a debt of gratitude to senior Megan O’Neill.
“As seniors, me and the Behrs just wanted to come out and give our team that extra step that we needed,” said O’Neill. “At the beginning of the game, we had a lot of younger players step in. To be able to gain that step on them and get a goal for my team and give us a boost was exactly what we were looking for.”
It was O’Neill who took control of a goal kick mishandled by LD senior Rory Klingensmith, pushed it along the end line then blasted it into the left side of the net 24:52 into the first half.
“Number 28 (Klingensmith) is a really strong player; I knew that coming in,” said O’Neill. “I didn’t think she was going to take a touch inside but I just kind of anticipated it.
“I took a shot and I just couldn’t believe it went through.”
The Jems missed a golden opportunity to pad the lead 11 minutes into the second half when senior Miranda Behr hit the cross bar on one of her shots.
The Falcons’ best chance to score came in the 63rd minute. That’s when LD senior Adeline Gesford bounced a shot in front of VJM senior goalkeeper Maria Tunney. While the ball bounced over the head of the netminder, the keeper recovered in time to snatch the ball from the foot of Lower Dauphin sophomore Kylie Boyer, who was standing near the right side goalpost just waiting to net the equalizer.
Thanks to Tunney and the Jems’ defense, it was a goal that would never come.
In addition to Santoro, Villa starts sophomore Jackie Levins and two freshmen – Katie Sullivan in the middle and Julia beck on defense.
The youngsters will have to step up if the Jems are to stand any chance of beating Moon Area, which has outscored its opposition 120-8 this season.
Leading the Victors’ offense is senior Delaney Snyder, who broke the school scoring record in early September and has over 100 career goals at MA.
“This is going to be our toughest match of the year. We have to show up mentally prepared,” added O’Neill. “Their top scorer – Delaney – she came at us last year. We just can’t let her get the best of us. We just need to stay strong, stick to our game plan and do what we do best.”
Last year, after notching 38 goals and 29 assists, Snyder was named Eastern Regional all-American by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. She was also named to the Pennsylvania Soccer Coaches Association all-state team.
Snyder has 55 goals this season and will likely score a couple more before she sets off for Miami, of Ohio, where she will play collegiate soccer.
Villa Jo has its work cut out for it in Saturday’s state AAA title game.
PIAA Class AAA Semifinal
Villa Joseph Marie 1, Lower Dauphin 0
(Nov. 14 at Hamburg Area HS)
VILLA JO (23-1-1) 1 0 – 1
LOW. DAUPHIN (15-7-1) 0 0 – 0
GOALS: VJM – Megan O’Neill, unassisted, 25 minute; LD – none.
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