HAVERFORD — The start to Episcopal Academy’s rivalry game with Haverford School Saturday afternoon might have seemed like a nightmare to those wearing blue.
To Matt Freese, though, standing in the end of the field backed by EA’s raucous travelling support, it was the exact opposite.
And when the EA sophomore goalkeeper replicated the circumstances of his dream — stopping the second-minute penalty kick drawn and taken by the Fords’ Dan Lyons — it set him on course toward a day to remember.
The penalty-kick stop was one of 15 saves produced by Freese in a 0-0 draw of which Freese was the unquestioned star.
That save total isn’t your usual, trumped-up figure for an aggressive goalkeeper: Freese and his defense were under more or less constant pressure, with Freese the dam holding back the wave of Fords’ attacks.
Four of Freese’s saves were absolutely world class, starting with the trip to dream land.
“Basically when they called the PK, I was thinking, ‘ wow, this is a great start to the game. This is not going to fare well for the rest of the game,” Freese said. “… Normally it scares me. But today, literally, I have dreams about moments so many times in that exact position. I just did what I dreamed of.’
Lyons was felled near the edge of the 18-yard box in the game’s opening moments, a borderline penalty that went in the Fords favor. Up to the spot stepped Lyons, a senior with one goal to his name this season getting the starting nod on Senior Day. Freese guessed correctly, diving low to his left to palm the ball around the post and avert what would’ve been catastrophic danger.
From there, Freese’s confidence snowballed.
“It made me pretty psyched for the rest of the game,’ he said. “It was nice knowing that I had just made a pretty good save.’
If the spot-kick denial was “pretty good,’ we’ll have to dig deep into the bag of superlatives to portray the other highlight-reel stops.
In the 21st minute, Freese leapt to spectacularly get a glove to a superb turning drive from Connor Gregory that appeared ticketed for the upper corner.
Jerry Karalis had the first major chance of the second half, thanks to a pass laid off by Gregory, but Karalis’ low shot was resolutely plucked out of the air by the sure gloves of Freese.
“I think we played overall really well,’ Karalis said. “… Unfortunately we couldn’t find the back of the net. Their keeper had a great game, and although we tied overall, I think we were the better team today.’
On and on the onslaught came from the already-crowned Inter-Ac champion Fords (14-2-2, 7-1-2), through 12 corner kicks, a litany of tantalizing long throw-ins by defender Jimmy Tricolli and numerous shots that just narrowly missed the target.
Tucker McBride was stonewalled on his sharp-angle shot by Freese in the next-to-last minute of regulation, Karalis’ follow-up shot fizzling wide. As time wound down in the first overtime period, Freese flashed a hand seemingly from nowhere to sensationally flick away a fast-break chance from Gregory, who was past the defense with just Freese to beat. And Freese managed the chaos of a second-OT scramble in the box, somehow repelling the Fords.
Freese got plenty of help in his efforts. The EA defense had a stellar game, led by center back Michael Hinckley. Aaron Bogle cleared a ball from a dangerous area in the second overtime, and midfielder Matt DePillis provided a vital clearance off the line at the far post off a particularly dangerous corner kick late in the first half.
“They definitely have got some big guys,’ Hinckley said. “The Bradley brothers (Conor and Shane) are big and they come in for all those corners and throw-ins. So we’re just trying to make sure we have those guys marked and clear everything right away, make sure we win the second balls. I think we did a great job. Couple of close calls, but Freese saved us a bunch of times.’
Chances were few and far between in the opposite direction, with EA (9-9-5, 2-4-4 Inter-Ac) challenging Haverford School goalkeeper Quinn Letter with just three shots. The most challenging came off the boot of Hinckley late in the first half, a shot from outside the area that threatened to catch Letter on the wrong foot, but the keeper recovered to make an easy catch.
Ultimately for EA, the pace of play was eerily reminiscent to the meeting two years prior at the same field. That day, the Fords capped their first of three straight Inter-Ac titles with a 5-0 drubbing. Freese was in the crowd, supporting older brother Tim. It was a performance that was mentioned once or twice this week.
“We mainly focused on last year when we lost 1-0, but we talked briefly earlier in the week how that’s going to be the point of the week’s practices, just to make sure that doesn’t happen again,’ Freese said. “Solidify our defense, make sure we’re communicating, so it gave us a good incentive to keep working.’
That nightmare, as it turns out, wasn’t repeated, thanks in large part to Freese.