Pope John Paul II stuns Boyertown 2-1 in PAC-10 semifinal

BUCKTOWN — A little more than three years ago, Lauren Dao, Bridget Rauh, Talia Marano and the rest of the current Pope John Paul II girls soccer seniors began their varsity journey on the ground floor for a fledgling squad.

Tuesday night, that group arrived at a dreamy destination no one could have imagined back then.

Dao deflected in the go-ahead goal off Marano’s corner kick with a little more than eight minutes left in regulation as the Golden Panthers stunned Boyertown 2-1 in a Pioneer Athletic Conference semifinal at Owen J. Roberts.

The Frontier Division runner-up Golden Panthers not only earned their first trip to the league final, but also managed to connect twice in the final 16 minutes against a Bears defense that hadn’t allowed a score over its previous 10-plus games.

Kayla Mesaros began the comeback by drawing a foul in the box and connecting on the ensuing penalty kick, and fellow freshman Colleen Morton made nine saves in goal for PJP (14-5), which faces defending league champ Spring-Ford (13-3-3) — a 3-2 winner over Phoenixville — for all the marbles Thursday, back at Owen J. Roberts at 6 p.m.

“This means so much to us,’ said Dao, a spitfire of a midfielder bound for Seton Hall. “A lot of us have played for all four years and we’ve been working our butts off. We wanted to make history for our school.’

Though PJP had a few good looks in the first half, Liberty Division champ Boyertown (13-4) drew first blood 40 seconds before intermission when a hand ball in the box call resulted in a penalty kick that Taylor Sassaman buried.

That’s how it stayed until the 65th minute, when Mesaros — who had a hat trick in a 3-1 win over Boyertown last month — drew a foul in the box and was awarded a penalty kick, which she calmly deposited in the back left corner of the net.

“That gave us so much momentum,’ said Dao. “We knew we had it from there. We felt it coming; we felt we were going to win.

“We were pressuring them the whole game. We pestered them so much, and they were getting frustrated and fouling. Then we got that corner.’

Marano, who had been a gametime decision due to suffering a hamstring injury over the weekend, curled the corner kick to the far post where Bears keeper Sarafina Valenti desperately tried to punch it out. But the diminutive Dao managed to get a piece of it and it trickled over the line to set off a wild celebration among the PJP bench, which was repeated after regulation time expired.

“As soon as I sent it in,’ said Marano, “I just knew.’

“No. 1, the girls never give up,’ first-year PJP coach Stewart Sherk said. “This was the first time we’ve trailed and come back to win the game, and that says something about their character. We told the girls to go out there and have fun, but not to be happy just because we made it here. We wanted to take it a step farther, but play relaxed. We felt that we were going to get a break and good things were going to happen.’

They did thanks to a unit that combines the experience of seniors such as Dao, Marano, Rauh, Court Thompson, Angela McMonagle and Grace Sein-Lwin — along with juniors Reiley Cotter and Catherine Roth — to go along with the promise of freshmen such as Mesaros, Morton, Julia Owens and Avery Cotter (who missed the game due to illness).

“This team has battled all year,’ Sherk said. “Our senior experience at midfield (Dao, Rauh, Thompson, Marano) is huge; there’s no replacing that. And I can’t say enough about Catherine Roth at sweeper. When she’s on, nothing gets by her.’

PJP finished with a 13-11 edge in shots and 4-1 advantage in corners. Valenti made 11 saves.

“They were better,’ Boyertown coach Bill Goddard said. “They’re a good team, and they’re well-coached. I have a lot of respect for them. We battled, but we just weren’t quite good enough. To their credit, they have some physical kids and some quick kids, and that showed. The coaching staff there has certainly turned that program around. Credit to their players and their staff. They played well tonight and they earned the victory.’

One of historic proportions for a program making its first PAC-10 Final Four appearance.

“We were really hyped up,’ Marano aid. “Everyone was really ready and pumped up, and everyone is school is going to be going crazy tomorrow.’

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