Penncrest comes up short in loss to W.C. East

MIDDLETOWN — Choked with emotion, Penncrest boys soccer coach Paul Norris recounted the adversity his team had overcome throughout the season.

Key injuries had shaken up the lineup on almost a weekly basis, yet the Lions had shown the character and fortitude to persevere — until Thursday.

Playing in far from ideal conditions against a scrappy West Chester East squad intent on proving that it was better than its 25th seed, Penncrest surrendered a goal early in the second half and never produced the equalizer in dropping the District One Class AAA opening-round match, 1-0.

“This has been my best season, by far, aside from the ending,’ Norris said, his eyes welling. “This group of seniors is something special. I teach at the middle school, so I’ve seen some of these guys for seven years. That’s why it’s really hard for me, especially seeing how much pain they’re in. They just tried and tried and tried, no matter what obstacles we came up against this season, they found a way.’

Norris excused himself from the interview to share hugs and handshakes with his 10 seniors, including Drew Hanna, who sat for what seemed an eternity on a corner of the pitch with his head buried in his hands.

Hanna had missed the previous six games due to a high ankle sprain, but was taped and re-taped in an effort to help the eighth-seeded Lions advance to the second round.

“I couldn’t really use my left foot, I was just trying to get through on adrenaline,’ Hanna said. “We had so many chances, me especially, and I just couldn’t finish them.’

Without a medical report, it was hard to tell that Hanna was not at full strength.

Less than four minutes into the match, Hanna unleashed a bullet ticketed for the top right corner of the net that Viking goalie Matthew Grenell two-fisted away. Ten minutes later, sophomore Sam Brown put his exceptional dribbling skill on display, sidestepping a defender and tight-roping the end line before delivering a perfect dish in front of the net. Hanna, situated at the left post, simultaneously spun and tapped the ball on an agonizingly slow arc that just rolled wide of the right post.

For the rest of the first half the teams took turns counter-attacking.

Lions keeper Liam Thomas, who made seven saves and helped his defensive mates by tracking down long passes throughout the match, punched a laser by East star striker Baley Federico over the crossbar and followed up with a two-handed cradle of a straight-on shot by Viking Daniel Tyler.

With a little over nine minutes to go before intermission, it was Penncrest’s chance to take the lead when Charles Simpson’s corner kick sailed over everyone and clanged off the opposite post. Simpson appeared to be taken down in the box a half-minute later, eliciting a frenzied crowd reaction when no call was made.

Sophomore Shea Morgan made a key clear with Federico on the prowl late in the half, and Penncrest nearly cashed in the ensuing possession when Quinn McIntyre’s blast from the top of the box curled just high and wide of the left post.

Switching ends at the half also meant that the Vikings (10-7-2) had the wind at their backs.

Federico used that newfound advantage to send a free kick into the box. The ball bounded off East’s Zach Canfield and directly in the path of teammate Eric Drew, who emerged from a mass of bodies to toe poke low, slow shot that just beat the Penncrest keeper inside the right post.

There was still 30 minutes, 32 seconds remaining for Penncrest (14-4-1) to extend its season, but a handful of close calls and a string of offside calls added to the Lions’ frustration. James Bullitt was assessed a yellow card and Shea Morgan drew a pair — the latter sending him to the bench and leaving Penncrest to play the final 4:09 a man down.

Thomas responded with a pair of point-blank stops to keep the Lions within striking distance, but time ran out on Penncrest’s offense and its season.

“This is why you play the games,’ Norris said of the bracket busting loss.

Watching his veteran players collect their gear along the sideline one last time, Norris couldn’t help but think of how the Lions had reached this point.

“It was just a great group of people and personalities and things just seemed to click,’ he said. “It was fun to come to practice and it was fun watching them play. But more than anything, it was fun watching them grow and develop.’


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