UPPER MERION >> The Hurricanes of Villa Maria Academy are used to being the hunted when it comes to the playoffs. In nearly every sport, Villa is the one at the top of the heap.
On Thursday night, the Villa soccer team was in unfamiliar territory, trying to complete a Cinderella run through the District 1 Class 3A playoffs as the No. 9 seed.
But on the other sideline was that team that is always hunted. And it finished the job.
Second-seeded perennial power Villa Joseph Marie took care of Villa Maria, 3-1, Thursday night at Upper Merion.
Villa Joe midfielder Jillian Hunter who would find a way to break through the tough Villa Maria defense, putting her fingerprints on all three goals for the Jems, scoring two of them while assisting on the other.
Her most crucial contribution came immediately after Villa Maria forward Sarah Goldblum brought the score to 2-1 with just 21 minutes remaining in the second half.
Hunter took a loose ball that caromed out to her, took a touch, and buried a beautifully placed shot past the outstretched arms of Villa Maria goalkeeper Alyssa Kinmartin with 20 minutes left in the second half.
“It was chaotic in the box,” said Hunter. “I saw two defenders and I saw the ball bouncing my way and I let my instincts take over and told myself to shoot and I’m just glad it went in.”
For Villa Maria, the Cinderella run fell just short. But the season is not over, as Villa heads into the state tournament against the District 12 champ.
Through the district playoffs, Villa embraced being the underdog in nearly every round.
In the first round, the Hurricanes beat No. 9 Phoenixville, 1-0. Their second-round 1-0 victory really created a stir in the playoffs when they took down top seeded Strath Haven.
In the semifinals versus No. 5 Nazareth Academy, Villa Maria would come away with the upset — again — by a score of 1-0.
“We came into every game thinking that we could win.” said junior midfielder Maddie Byrne. “We knew that nobody respected us at the seed we were at, and we used and channeled it onto the field.”
It took 15 minutes for the scoring to begin Thursday night, and breaking through first on the scoreboard was Villa Joe. Outside midfielder Katherine Sullivan would put away a close-range shot that was beautifully set up by Hunter from inside the six-yard box.
“We came out and got the early goal and that is incredibly important, especially in the playoffs,” said Villa Joe head coach Rich Finneyfrock. “We find that if we don’t get the early goal then teams pack it in and then playing from behind is tough, but with us getting that goal it loosened up their defense and we were able to attack them all night.”
Villa Maria would find itself in a deeper hole when defender Dylan Miller was called for a handball inside the box with 33 minutes remaining in the second half. Hunter would step up and calmly find the back of the net on the penalty kick, extending the Jems’ lead to 2-0.
Just like they have fought all tournament long, the Hurricanes would fight back with a goal of their own. Goldblum would take a deep pass that deflected off of a Villa Joe defender, and would race toward the goal, setting up a one v. one opportunity with goalkeeper Morgan Murphy, which Goldblum narrowly won, sending the ball slowly rolling over the goal line.
“We play to the very end no matter what,” said Villa Maria’s Ashley Reilly. “Coming out of halftime we moved two more players up top to get more of our offense going and that is how Sarah was able to get that goal for us.”
Luckily for both schools, both teams will continue on in the state playoffs. Villa Maria will take on the District 12 champion next Tuesday, while Villa Joe will take on District 3 third-place team Lower Dauphin.
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