by Tom Utescher
On the brink of the beginning of May, weather conditions worse than on many days in late March confronted the girls of host Springside Chestnut Hill Academy and visiting Agnes Irwin as they converged for an Inter-Ac League lacrosse match last Tuesday afternoon.
Back on April 4, the Irwin Owls had rolled over the Blue Devils, 19-8, but in last week’s wet, chilly rematch, a soundly-conceived and well executed strategy of ball possession had SCH ahead 6-5 with under two minute remaining in the game. In the end though, the locals could not contain the visitors’ explosive offense, as the Owls funneled in three goals in the final one minute and 23 seconds to take home an 8-6 victory.
Springside Chestnut Hill (7-4 overall), which received two goals apiece from junior Maddie Aslansan and freshman Taylor Ferry, slipped back to the .500 mark in Inter-Ac play, at 3-3. The Blue Devils’ Megan McCool had fired in the first goal of the afternoon, and her sophomore classmate, Natalie Schwartz, scored with just over 13 minutes remaining to put the home team ahead, 6-5.
A third 10th-grader, goalkeeper Elsa Rall, made seven saves in the contest, helping her squad hold that late one-point edge for almost a dozen minutes before Irwin made its pivotal run at the end. Staying in contention until the final seconds took a solid team effort, especially since standout sophomore midfielder Mikaela Watson (who has verbally committed to Stanford) was sidelined due to injury.
Agnes Irwin left Chestnut Hill with a 14-1 overall record that reflected a home/away split against longtime Inter-Ac power Episcopal Academy. EA overwhelmed the Owls, 17-8, when they met on the first of April, but on April 24 Irwin emerged from the second meeting with a 13-11 victory, forging a tie with the Churchwomen for first place in the league.
With injuries to two starters early in the season, the Owls have been winning with a very young line-up, starting four freshman (including a rookie goalie) and an eighth-grader. The team’s go-to attacker, sophomore Hannah Keating, scored five times at Springside Chestnut Hill last Tuesday, putting Irwin over the top by netting her final two goals in the last 70 seconds of the game.
The Owls (6-1 Inter-Ac) received single strikes from Syracuse-bound senior Bridget Chakey and freshmen Alicia O’Neil and Dani Wright, while getting four stops in the goal from their ninth-grade keeper, Hailey Andress.
After SCH junior Sinéad Brierley seized the opening draw, the Blue Devils spread out on offense and kept ahold of the ball for almost seven minutes. Eventually, McCool spotted an opening, and drove straight up the middle to score with 6:54 elapsed.
First-year SCH coach Alex Kahoe (an Agnes Irwin alumna) explained, “Irwin is a very talented, well coached team that is very fast and has a lot of scoring threats. We wanted to do our best to control the tempo and not let them have a lot of time with the ball.
“You hate to lose, but I was very proud of our team,” she continued. “There are a lot of college teams that can’t follow the kind of a game-plan we put out there. All the players were committed to what we were trying to do, and everyone stepped up and played with a lot of heart.”
Both teams had played at the Katie Samson Lacrosse Festival the previous Saturday, and second-year Agnes Irwin mentor Jenny Duckenfield related, “Most of our girls spent all day Sunday at try-outs for Nationals, so we were a little tired. That doesn’t take anything away from how well Springside Chestnut Hill played. They came up with a good game-plan against us and they executed it well.”
Still, the Owls gave an early indication of their quick-strike ability by answering the opening goal by SCH with three markers in just over three minutes. O’Neill converted off of a free position, Wright gave the visitors their first lead, and then Keating got going by cashing in on another free-position opportunity.
That made it 3-1 with about 13 minutes left in the half, and with the clock dipping below the nine-minute mark, Owls goalie Andress preserved the two-goal edge, stopping a shot by McCool and then making another save on a free-po shot a few seconds later.
Eventually, the Blue Devils put up a second goal with 2:17 to go in the opening period. McCool passed the ball down to Ferry a few meters outside the right side of the crease. The freshman took the ball behind the cage, then slipped back out front on the same side to score.
Ferry, equipped with good eye-hand coordination that has also helped her become one of the school’s best squash players, scored again with 31 seconds left in the half. She was open in front of the cage to receive a feed from Brierley, and she tied the bout at 3-3.
The teams would not still be even at the intermission, though; Irwin took the next draw and Keating came down the field to give the Owls a 4-3 edge with 12 seconds remaining. Brierley scooped up the last draw of the half, but only had time to make a long heave in the direction of the cage.
The Blue Devils were up on offense again as the second half got underway. Awarded a free position on the center hash mark, Aslansan put away a low shot to fashion 4-4 count a little over two-and-a-half minutes into the new period.
It wasn’t long before Keating put AIS back in the lead, but then Aslansan tied the game for the hosts once more. Awarded a free position behind the cage, she cradled out on the left side to chalk up her second marker of the day with a little over 17 minutes left to play.
SCH pocketed the subsequent draw and methodically moved the ball around on offense. A free-position shot by McCool was foiled when a defender got a piece of her stick, but the home team retained possession. From out in the flat to the right of the goal, junior Carlin Rode sent in a pass that found Schwartz close to the near post, and she moved the Blue Devils ahead, 6-5, with 13:08 on the clock.
It was a long time to hold a one-goal edge against a team like Irwin, but the Chestnut Hill team’s defensive unit came close to pulling it off.
“Elsa had a good game in goal, and I thought that [freshman] Mason Rode did a great job playing denial defense,” Kahoe commented. “Sarah Mathes [a junior], Remi Fillipini [a sophomore] and Morgan Fitton-Zellers [a freshman] are the core of our defense and they all played well. The way we wanted to play this game, Elsa and the defense weren’t seeing the ball a lot, but they stayed focused and they were ready when the play came down to their end of the field.”
After taking the lead at 6-5, SCH once again controlled the draw, then kept possession for a few minutes before finally turning the ball over just under the 10-minute mark. Irwin attacked, but a shot by sophomore Sarah Nicolson hit a pipe and an attempt soon after that by Keating was repulsed by Rall.
Following a time-out with 5:50 on the clock, the Blue Devils held the ball for two minutes but then lost it out-of-bounds. As the Owls pressed for the equalizer, Rall made another stop against Keating, and Irwin fired a second ball just over the cage.
For all of the talented youngsters on the AIS roster, it was one of the few seniors, Chakey, who stepped up with the tying goal for the visitors.
Out near the edge of the arc on the right wing, she expertly dodged her defender and fired into the net, knotting things up at 6-6 with 1:23 to go.
Irwin then snapped the string of SCH draw controls and dashed back down on offense, quickly earning a free position on a shooting-space violation by the Blue Devils. From the right side of the arc, Keating capitalized for the eventual game-winner with 1:10 on the board. SCH asked for a stick check, but this yielded a positive outcome for Irwin, who now was given the ball in the center circle to resume play.
Keating charged straight in and tattooed the final score on the board with an insurance goal for the Owls; it was the sophomore’s 93rd of the season. Springside Chestnut Hill came up with one last draw, but with 30 seconds to go Irwin’s Andress stopped the final shot of the day by the Blue Devils.
Although victory eluded the locals at the end, Kahoe noted, “I think we’ve been making great strides, and there were a lot of good things for us to take away from this game.”
In addition to SCH’s hard-fought duel against the co-leader in the Inter-Ac, interesting outcomes in the league on the same afternoon included Penn Charter’s upset of Notre Dame and Baldwin’s victory over Germantown Academy. Teams that have been the lesser lights in the league are shining brighter, making the Inter-Ac a league that’s becoming solid all the way through, instead of an organization featuring a few marquee teams beating up on the also-rans.
“It’s exciting to see the league getting so competitive,” Kahoe remarked, “because it benefits all the players to consistently face strong competition.”
The SCH mentor will get no argument on that score from the architect of Irwin’s ascent.
“I’m just really impressed with the coaching that we’re seeing all around the league,” said Duckenfield, who coached the Mount St. Joseph Academy team in 2012 before taking over the Owls. “You can’t take anyone for granted in the Inter-Ac, and most of the teams are doing well outside the league, too.”