Tredyffrin >> Getting off to an early lead has been a mantra of the Conestoga girls’ soccer team this season, and it was vital to the Pioneers’ 2-1 win against No. 3 seed Pennridge Tuesday evening in the PIAA District 1 4A semifinals.
Just 33 seconds into the game, Conestoga senior outside midfielder Emily Wertz scored from close range to give the hosts a 1-0 lead. The scoring play developed when junior right back Calista Courtney penetrated the Pennridge defense, then her ball across the box found Wertz on the far side of the box.
“Callie was dribbling down the line, and their whole back line shifted,” said Wertz. “I was wide open on the back post, and it came right across to me, and I put it in.”
Conestoga head coach Ben Wilson said, “I always preach to the girls I always want us to get off on the front foot, to make the other team adjust to us and use our speed, our technical ability, our offensive ability, and try to lead the game. It’s always easier to manage the game when you’re leading instead of when you’re coming from behind.”
Wertz, a Susquehanna University soccer commit, now has 13 goals, third on the Conestoga squad behind Caitlin Donovan (26) and Nia Scott (15).
“Emily keeps getting better and better this season, and it’s great to see – she’s had a tough last couple of years,” said Wilson. “She tore her ACL mid-season each of the last two seasons, so she’s battled back twice now.”
Midway through the first half, Conestoga added to its early lead when Donovan forced a turnover, then raced forward from center midfield to dribble into the 18 yard box to complete an unassisted breakaway finish for her 26th goal of the season.
Despite a furious comeback effort by Pennridge in the game’s final 10 minutes, the Pioneers won 2-1.
With the victory, Conestoga (18-1-2), the No. 2 seed in the District 1 tournament, will face No. 8 seed Souderton in the district final Saturday at Upper Merion High School. Souderton, which defeated No. 20 seed Penncrest 1-0 in its district semifinal Tuesday, is in its first District 1 final since 2005.
“I thought tonight was our best performance of the season,” said Wilson. “Calista [Courtney] made so many driving runs from the back line; Caitlin [Donovan] again came up big, dribbling up the middle to slot home an easy finish; [center forward] Nia Scott worked up top really well for us – every time she got the ball there, she looked dangerous. On defense, everyone played phenomenal.”
Conestoga shut out Pennridge for the first 70 minutes, thanks to junior goalie Sarah Nselel (five saves) and a stingy defense.
“We have a strong defensive line, and we all communicated well back there,” said Nselel. “Our [other] players were helping to defend [as well].”
“Sarah just moved here [this year] from Missouri,” said Wilson. “While she has started pretty much every game, all 3 of our goalkeepers, Sarah, [junior] Maeve Regan and [sophomore] Caroline Klaiber, have been phenomenal all year. The way the three of them have worked together has been good for Sarah – the competition has made her better.”
While it appeared that Conestoga had the game in hand with a 2-0 lead and 10 minutes left, Pennridge (17-3-1), Suburban One Continental Conference champions for the third year in a row, proved persistent at the end. A goal by Ram senior forward Abby Groff from close range with 10 minutes left put Pennridge within striking distance, and for the rest of the game, the visitors poured on the pressure, keeping Conestoga pinned into its own half.
“Credit to Pennridge, they’re probably the best team we’ve played all season,” said Wilson. “They have a good coach, and I knew that they could find a way to score, and sure enough, they did. We didn’t look like we were in danger of [losing our lead], but in soccer, when you feel safe, that’s usually when you’re not safe (laughs). The last 10 minutes got pretty heated.”
In the final minute Pennridge gained back-to-back corners, but Nselel jumped over a pile of players in the box to snag the ball out of the air and help seal the 2-1 win.
Nselel said, “I think the key for us [in the last 10 minutes] was staying composed and working together as a team.”
Wertz said, “In the last two minutes, I kept thinking, ‘Don’t play with the ball in the backfield, get it upfield as much as you can.’ When the game ended, I was so happy, this is my first [full] year, and I’m really excited to see how we do in the district final.”
At game’s end, the Pioneers did not storm the field in celebration, but lined up to shake the hands of the Pennridge players.
“We’ve done that at the end of every game – I told the girls we need to act like we’ve been there before [after a win],” said Wilson. “From a sportsmanship standpoint, Pennridge is a phenomenal team, they didn’t do anything to rub it in our face, so we want to be a class act and keep marching through the playoffs.”
Conestoga has not lost a game since Sept. 4, when the Pioneers lost to West Chester Rustin, 3-2.
For Pennridge, which will play in the third-place game Saturday against No. 20 seed Penncrest, Tuesday’s game was a learning experience. The Rams recently have been making a habit of late comebacks – in the District 1 quarterfinal against No. 6 seed Abington, Pennridge trailed 1-0 late in the game, tied it up late in regulation and then won in overtime, 2-1.
“I think we learned in the past two games that we can be trailing and still have an opportunity to come back and win it – so we didn’t quit, we just kept playing,” Pennridge head coach Audrey Anderson said. “We have a lot of young players on this team and we need to learn how to get through this process as a team, and I think tonight there were enough upperclassmen that showed them that, if we keep working, we can be in any game.”
Along with Pennridge senior goalie Mary Kate Levish (six saves), Anderson mentioned the efforts of center backs Sarah Williams and Molly Groff.
“I thought our back four did a nice job of keeping Conestoga in check,” said Anderson. “Unfortunately, the first half got away from us, but there’s lessons to be learned in every game.”
Conestoga 2, Pennridge 1
Pennridge 0 1 – 1
Conestoga 2 0 – 2
Goals: Donovan (CO), Wertz (CO), A. Groff (P).
Goalie saves: Nselel (CO) 5, Levish (P) 6.
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