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Despite Backe’s battle, Sacred Heart falls to defending champ Greenwood

MANHEIM TWP. – At halftime in the blustery conditions at Manheim Township High School Saturday morning, a gust of wind toppled one of the field hockey cages. For most of the first half, the incessant pressure by Greenwood threatened to do the same, with only Sacred Heart goalie Gigi Backe preventing the Wildcats from overrunning the Lions.

Sacred Heart’s run in the PIAA Class A tournament ultimately ended in a 9-1 Greenwood victory, but with Backe between the posts, it didn’t terminate without a fight.

“We would’ve lost this game 42-0 if it wasn’t for her,” senior Danielle Santora said.

The midfielder’s math is off, but only just. Backe turned aside 24 of the shots that bombarded her cage from a Greenwood side that earned 20 penalty corners and moved two wins from defending its PIAA title.

When the Wildcats (21-1) scored four times in the game’s opening 7:40, it looked like it could be a long day for the Lions (9-13-1). But they steadied the ship and allowed just one goal over the next 35 minutes of game action, thanks largely to Backe.

“After that, we got our game going and we started playing,” Backe said. “And they didn’t score until the second half. That’s really confidence-building for the whole team.”

Greenwood’s abundance of talent would only be delayed, not stopped. Penn State-bound senior standout Paityn Wirth scored three times, though the last two weren’t until after the midway point of the second. Emma Rolston scored twice in the opening frame, Hailey Wormer tallied a pair of goals and Kennedy Stroup notched three assists and a goal.

The reminder that the Lions were in a different league came early. Rolston scored 87 seconds in, followed 23 ticks later by a Wirth goal where she raced just inside the circle and ripped a howitzer of a rising shot, the quality of which Backe (and most high school goalies) rarely encounter.

“I didn’t see that one coming,” Backe said. “I didn’t even see it past my face. It was fast and she did a good job with it.”

But Backe got the better of Wirth more often than not, aggressively cutting down the angles on Wirth’s preferred backhand sweep off corners. Backe had 11 stops at half to augment a Santora defensive save, keeping the Wildcats off the board for the last 22:20.

“She’s the only reason why we’re here,” Santora said of Backe. “I don’t know how goalies do it, but she has such a strong mentality. She’s pretty much our team. Without her, we would not be anywhere.”

Amanda Heilmann added a defensive save in the second half, and Stroup scored the fifth goal off a rebound of another Backe denial of Wirth. The senior reached 21 saves before Wirth finally powered a backhand sweep home, and a succession of late penalty corners tacked on to the lead.

Catie Gordon got a goal for the Lions in the final minute off a Julia Flood setup. It offered Sacred Heart a little consolation from the day, though their journey provided plenty. As District 1 champions who routed Lansdale Catholic, 5-1, in the first round of states, their program-changing season has presented plenty of memories beyond Saturday’s lopsided score line.

“It’s not a very athletic school, and that’s what the reputation around the Main Line is,” Santora said. “It’s like, ‘oh they’re Sacred Heart, we’ll beat them.’ But to be here and represent our school is awesome.”

“I think that it gives us a big start for next year,” Backe said. “We were the underdogs all through districts and then we won the first state game. We knew they were going to be a hard team, so I think we had a good run. I think we did really well.”

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