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Penncrest’s chances lost in the win in loss to Ephrata

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RED HILL — With a wind blowing at 30 miles per hour Saturday, Penncrest girls soccer coach Michael DeLeo knew he’d face an early, season-defining decision.

He didn’t hesitate.

Go for it, he decided

“We wanted to set the tone right away,” DeLeo said, after a 1-0 loss to Ephrata in the PIAA Class 4A quarterfinals. “We had some chances.”

When the pregame coin flip rolled to heads, and they had the choice, the Lions elected to play with the wind at their backs for the first 40 minutes. If that meant 40 minutes of chilling strife later, they would trust their speed and power to extend a season of proven grit.

As expected with such an assist from the winds, the Lions controlled the first half, consistently keeping Ephrata in retreat. But Ephrata goalie Jocelyn Umana was up to every challenge.

When halftime hit and the game was still scoreless, the winds of fortune were likely to change. They did. And with Penncrest unable to generate any long second-half plays, Ephrata controlled just enough of the play to score the game-winner with 19:06 to play.

After Rosa Saenz maneuvered in from the left side and kicked the ball off the crossbar, Madison Root recovered the rebound and redirected it past Penncrest goalie Bryn McLaughlin. With that, the Mountaineers were well on their way to the semifinals.

Penncrest, though, had fought against suppressed expectations all season to come within three victories of a state championship. So with a quarter of the game still to play, it would fight.

“That’s what I told them afterward,” DeLeo said. “We fought back from a 1-4-2 start to get to where we were today. I told them they played like champions. And they showed it.”

Despite the force of the wind at Upper Perkiomen High, along with the pressure to score and at least drag an otherwise satisfying season into overtime, the Lions did not retreat. High among the reasons was senior Sarah Hughes, who continued to drive the attack from the center of the field.

“She was great for us all year,” DeLeo said. “That’s the way she plays.”

Hughes gave Penncrest its best chance to score early, concocting a nifty, backward header that just missed. And so it was in the first 40 minutes, with Penncrest attacking, but Umana cutting off angles and tipping shots wide. On consecutive Penncrest corner kicks with 8:13 left in the half, Umana was particularly stingy, making quick, back-to-back saves.

With 3:29 left in the half, relentless Penncrest outside back Katie Sparling unloaded a 20-yard blast that required Umana to make a leaping save.

Then, the halftime horn sounded.

Then?

“We knew it would be different in the second half,” Hughes said. “But, no, we weren’t worried.”

Predictably, the Lions were not ready to panic. As Hughes explained, the wind could have affected Ephrata’s shooting, too.

Undaunted by the weather, Penncrest tried to attack early in the second, with Hughes setting up Kara Mullaney, whose shot, likely affected by the gusts, ripped just to the left.

At the other end, Penncrest was challenged to keep McLaughlin protected against an Ephrata offense keyed by the aggressiveness of Root and Abigail Wiest. That, it did, with Sparling and Juliana George, among others, consistently denying opportunities and driving the ball in the other direction.

Root’s goal eventually would prove to plenty for the higher-seeded Mounts of District 3, yet Penncrest continued to fight the overwhelming wind. With 4:24 left, McLaughlin made a massive save to deny Reagan McCarty, giving the Lions late hope. A late-game injury to the ever-active George, however, tended to dull the Lions’ chances.

“We never gave up,” Sparling said. “I am very proud to have played with these teammates.”

Umana was officially credited with five saves, and McLaughlin with two. Both goalies were much busier than the statistics reflected.

The Lions, who more than overcame their slow start to win a spot in the state tournament as the No. 3 seed out of District 1, finished at 10-6-4. It was a satisfying result given their early-season record and their final-game battle with the conditions. They will never know how it all may have gusted, had they chosen to play with the wind in the second half Saturday, and not the first. They will be proud, though, that they accepted every challenge.

“I really enjoyed this season,” said Hughes, a senior. “There are a lot of young players on this team. I can’t wait to see them play next year.”

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