Spring-Ford smashes Strath Haven to move a win away from return to states

ROYERSFORD — It wasn’t long ago that Spring-Ford was a team that seemed unable to find the back of the net.

Saddled with an injury to steadying midfield sheriff Taylor Newhart that threw off the equilibrium of the team, plus the ever-weightier mantle of last year’s run to the PIAA title game (and the defections from that squad), the dream of returning to states never seemed out of reach. But the distance to it, so went the consensus, required obvious improvement.

And now? The Rams are one win from a return to the state tournament, arriving at that point with more ferocity than most No. 8 seeds in an authoritative 5-1 dismissal of No. 9 seed Strath Haven Saturday in the second round of the District 1 Class AAA tournament.

The level of belief among the PAC-10 champion Rams (16-3-3) has ballooned in step with their recent run of good form.

“Our confidence has been growing so much,’ said Gabby Vagnozzi, the offensive protagonist Saturday. “We were in a goal-scoring drought, and we hadn’t scored in a long time, and all of a sudden, the past three games, we’ve been hitting three or four goals. It made our confidence so much stronger.’

The finishing from Vagnozzi and company Saturday made it hard to believe the faucet of goals ever ran dry. They deposited four chances in the back of the net in the first 27 minutes, two each from Vagnozzi and Libby Andrews. The Rams generated their first chance 19 seconds into the game and bombarded Strath Haven with their high-pressure, attacking posture.

Vagnozzi, who set up one of Andrews’ tallies, finished her hat trick in the second half to put the Rams up five and take her season tally to 15 goals. Had the net been 18 inches wider, the Saint Joseph’s commit could’ve bagged six goals.

The early blitzkrieg took Strath Haven (15-4-2) completely off its game. Thanks in large part to the presence of Newhart holding court in midfield, Strath Haven’s usual plan of slotting through balls into the feet of speedy strikers was short-circuited.

It took until the 67th minute for a breakthrough, a just payoff for the tireless work by senior Maddy Tannert-Schmidt up top off a feed from Maddie Forbes. The goal is just the 11th allowed by the Rams this season.

Having top scorer Lizzie King, who’d finished off 24 goals this season, spend time on the sidelines with a knee issue certainly didn’t help. But even when she was on the field, the disruptive presence of the La Salle commit Newhart made sure she and her fellow Panthers attackers were muted.

“There wasn’t much,’ said Tannert-Schmidt, who notched her 10th tally of the season. “Their defense was really strong, so it was hard to get balls through it. I think we had to keep on trying, and we had to start passing through the midfield and work our way up instead of playing through balls.’

It’s the second straight fall that the Panthers have seen their season ended by Spring-Ford. Last year, the Rams, again seeded eighth, handled No. 3 Strath Haven, 4-1, in the fifth-place playback game for the final PIAA berth.

Newhart’s reintroduction to the lineup is one of the most profound for Spring-Ford. She missed four weeks in the middle of the season with a back injury, a trying and impatient stint on the sidelines for the junior. But her return coincided with a boost in form for the Rams, which won a second straight PAC-10 playoff title before dismissing William Tennent, 1-0, on a last-minute goal in the first round of districts.

One of five holdovers from last season’s team which lost in overtime in the PIAA final, Newhart’s value can’t be understated.

“She secures us,’ Vagnozzi said. “I feel safe when she’s back there. She’s awesome. She’s a wall.’

That return has precipitated to a holistic surge in confidence for a team that starts just three seniors. For evidence, look no further than the first goal, a hook up between freshman Gabby Kane and the sophomore Andrews.

“I think the underclassmen are a big threat,’ Andrews said. “I think we’re showing this district, this league that we’re going to come out stronger and show who’s boss. We’re younger than everyone else.’

The speed of Vagnozzi on the wing made things uncomfortable for a Strath Haven defense used to keeping a high defensive line and playing the offside trap. The aggressiveness of goalkeeper Katie Fisher was also preyed on, like in the 12th minute when Vagnozzi eyed Fisher off her line and expertly chipped a shot from 25 yards just under the crossbar and in.

Vagnozzi pounced on a loose touch in the box to score out of nothing in the 23rd minute, then got around a defender down the left wing and crossed for Andrews to tap home four minutes later to send the Rams flying into half up 4-0. The fast start continued a recent trend that is becoming a calling card for the Rams.

The win puts Spring-Ford a win away from states. Top-seeded Pennsbury awaits Tuesday, but the Falcons will meet a rising tide of momentum from the supposed underdogs.

“Because we were so determined to get back to where we were last year, we wanted to keep our focus and keep going,’ Newhart said. “I think our determination is what made us realize that we had to do what we did last year and work hard in every game.’

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