WORCESTER >> There was a moment early in the District 1 Class 3A final, when most fans still recovering from their respective hour-plus drives to Methacton High School had yet to settle into seats, where Penncrest’s defense shut off for the briefest of moments.
Against a team with the championship pedigree of Villa Joseph Marie, that momentary blink is enough to doom a game’s worth of effort.
The top-seeded Gems made it seven District 1 titles in a row thanks to Miranda Behr’s ninth-minute tally, which stood up for a 1-0 victory Thursday evening.
Behr’s moment came and went in a flash. The senior midfielder slipped her marker in the box with a looping run to the near post just as Megan O’Neill feigned a look at goal from the right wing and swiveled her hips to cross into the danger area. Behr was first to the ball, one-timing it with power and placement past Penncrest goalkeeper Bryn McLaughlin for the opener and, ultimately, the decider.
“I think we didn’t predict the cross, because I saw her looking toward goal, and she turned (to cross),” McLaughlin said. “I just don’t think the anticipated the run coming in, and it was a clinical finish.”
Where last year’s District 1 final between the teams devolved into a 4-0 romp once the dam broke, second-seeded Penncrest (18-2) held the fort Thursday and pushed the game onto leveler terms, if just not on the scoreboard.
Though Villa Joe (19-1-1) led the way in possession and shots on target, Penncrest created dangerous moments. It just lacked the incisive edge to uncover a breakthrough.
The difference was as obvious on Behr’s goal as in a decisive sequence in the 63rd minute, when goalie Maria Tunney brandished game-changing flair.
After an hour of the Penncrest bench exhorting its forwards to push higher and test the Villa Joe backline with speed, sub Morgan King finally clawed open a path through the defense. Before she could get solid contact on the through ball, though, Tunney had rushed out to the top of the 18 to meet her with a smothering tackle.
The loose ball fell to Kenna Kaut, on the left wing and her preferred left foot, but she tucked a tight-angle drive against the grain just in time for a scrambling Tunney to recover to her line and snare it.
“I saw (King) was on a breakaway so I knew that I had to jump on the ball and get there or else she would’ve put it away,” Tunney said. “Any finisher of her quality from that close is going to put it away if you give them an opportunity. So I knew I had to get to the ball at the same time as her. I met her at the ball and then I saw the rebound, and I knew I wasn’t going to beat (Kaut) to the ball. So I got up as fast as I could like I’m taught at goalie school, and I got back to my line as quick as possible and just saw the shot in the air and went up and got it.”
“The defender was running at me so I touched around her,” Kaut said. “It was on my left foot so I just shot as hard as I could. … I should’ve taken another touch.”
The double save was the most difficult of five stops recorded by Tunney. Her opposite number was busier, keeping the Lions in the game.
McLaughlin, behind a defense that has only surrendered five goals this season, made a superb leaping save on Katie Sullivan in the 32nd minute after a rare defensive miscommunication allowed the winger to waltz in behind the backline. McLaughlin was already going to ground when she trapped a Madeline Jiminez shot off a corner kick in the 55th, controlling a bobble that popped briefly over her prone figure on the turf.
And in the 74th, with Villa Joe’s game-killing possession occasionally meandering into the vicinity of goal, McLaughlin palmed a Jiminez drive from distance over the bar in sterling fashion.
“You just have to mentally keep yourself in the game by talking to your players,” said McLaughlin, who stopped six shots. “If you don’t talk, you kind of clock out of the game and you can’t do that. You have to always stay alert, and the best way to do that is to communicate to everyone.”
In addition to giving wingers freer rein, the Lions switched to three at the back, moving fullbacks Katie Sparling and Kaut up in a the dogged push for an equalizer. But those waves of pressure crested around the Tunney double denial, with the Gems adept at taking the air out of the ball late, one of the soft skills accrued on so many district title runs. It’s a measure of how often the ball resided in Penncrest’s defensive half that the Gems earned seven corner kicks to the Lions’ two.
Improving on last year’s states run has been the mantra for Penncrest all season. One aim was to avenge the district final loss, of which they fell disappointingly shy. But the next item on the list is to notch a states win, eclipsing last year’s 3-0 loss to Manheim Township in the first round of states.
Penncrest’s shot at redemption arrives Tuesday against the District 3 champ Fleetwood, and the Lions’ approach is heartened by the progress relative to last year.
“It’s definitely a sign of growth,” McLaughlin said. “I don’t know about consolation, but sign of growth definitely. I’m really proud of everyone. Obviously they worked so hard. It was such a close game, and in comparison to last year, the fact that we actually had a very strong chance of winning just shows how far we’ve come.”