Germantown Academy overcomes elements, Westtown School, returns to PAISAA final

WHITEMARSH >> With wind whipping a steady rain all over a soaked turf pitch, it was a tough day to pass a soccer ball around, either by air or on the ground.

Naturally, Germantown Academy forwards Mackenzie Pluck and Bailey Gilmore made it look easy while creating the first two goals in GA’s 3-1 win over Westtown School in a PAISAA semifinal Thursday afternoon. The Patriots got another standout game from their central midfield and despite the adverse weather, controlled the flow of the game.

Senior keeper Kat Stambaugh and her defense also handled the conditions well and as a result, the Patriots are going back to the state title game on Saturday.

“We didn’t string it together quite as nicely as we would have wanted to, but we did it consistently enough to keep them under pressure,” GA coach Chris Nelson said. “I thought we had a lot of good opportunities and a lot of good offensive pressure.”

The majority of that pressure came from the combo of Pluck and Gilmore, the dynamic sophomore duo up top. After a couple of cracks from deep, the first off a free kick by senior co-captain Sophie Axenroth, the Patriots started to get a feel for the play off the turf.

Gilmore said the ball played differently at different times throughout the game, but GA figured it out long enough to get a goal in the first half. Pluck crossed the ball in to Gilmore, who had her initial shot saved but crashed the rebound and hammered it home.

“Winning the ball out of the air, it was important we didn’t let it bounce because that changes the direction on wet turf,” Gilmore said. “It was important that we played quickly and to feet. It changed throughout the game and we had to compensate for the wetness of the turf and the speed of the ball that it was going to travel.”

Westtown didn’t threaten a ton in the first half and didn’t have the same kind of time and possession in the middle of the field that GA had. Its best look came off a rip on the right wing that Stambaugh read perfectly and hauled in.
The senior keeper read the game and more specifically the speed of the ball well Thursday. She patrolled her box and wasn’t hesitant to charge a through ball ahead of a Westtown School player.

“You always have to have your body behind the ball, with that kind of ball there’s always going to be a rebound so I relied on my defenders a lot coming back to help on a rebound,” Stambaugh said. “I think I have a good sense when people are going to play the through ball and I like to play with my feet more than my hands in a game so it helps me with that.”

Westtown came out more inspired in the second half and made a couple of good runs forward but the GA back line was able to cut them down. Sophomore Rachel Villari and senior Kayla Seiberlich had a couple of nice moments in individual defending.

The Patriots settled the game down and regained a sense of control thanks to another connection from its forwards. This time it was Gilmore providing the set up, playing Pluck in with a good ball off the left side. Pluck got to it before Westtown’s charging keeper, one-touched it around, recovered the sliding ball and fired it across into the net with 27:03 to go.

“It’s just communication and making the runs wherever you need to be,” Gilmore said. “Mac’s pretty good with the ball at her feet so I try to play it in to feet most of the time.”

“They’re our dynamic duo,” Stambaugh added.

Some forwards just have a natural connection and that’s the case with GA’s tandem.

“They’ve been playing together for two whole years now and they’re in the same advisory so they do everything together and are together all the time,” Nelson said. “They have a real great sense of what the other is going to do with the ball. That second goal was one of those weird things where they just end up in the right place for each other.”

Senior Emilia Dolaway pushed the lead to 3-0 when she latched onto a through ball behind the back line and put a lot of pop into a shot that hit the keeper’s gloves and stayed low enough to sail under the crossbar. Freshman Ally Clark played the ball up to Dolaway for an assist.

Emily Sands pulled one back for the Moose with a quality rip from distance that Stambaugh couldn’t get to with roughly eight minutes left. The keeper evened the personal score with a fantastic diving save on Sands a few minutes later.
“It was just being smart timing-wise,” Stambaugh said. “They scored with eight minutes left so we had to be smart back there and play safe.”

GA’s unsung heroes played in the middle of the field including Ally Clark, Kathryn Hackley and Brynn Skelly. Their ability to win tackles and keep possession will be critical on Saturday when the Patriots face Episcopal Academy in the state title game. EA beat the Patriots by a 3-2 score in both meetings this season.

The Patriots will be looking to finish off what they couldn’t last season when they fell in the title game. They do it playing some of their best soccer, shaking off a tumultuous end to the season.

“We were a little off-kilter, we struggled in that game with EA then had a heartbreaking tie with Penn Charter,” Nelson said. “I’m really proud of them for coming out of what was a really tough 10 days, refocusing their energies and playing two really good games of soccer. I feel like they deserve to be back in that championship game.”

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