All game long last Friday, Haverford School kept lofting balls into the box, only to see SCH junior goalie Sam McDowell haul them down. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

All game long last Friday, Haverford School kept lofting balls into the box, only to see SCH junior goalie Sam McDowell haul them down. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

The odds were long that a 1-0 lead would hold up for 70 minutes against a soccer power such as Haverford School, which arrived at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy last Friday as the top-ranked team in a Southeastern Pennsylvania poll released just days earlier.

Somehow, the host Blue Devils pulled it off, riding senior Christian Williams’ goal at 10:27 of the first half to victory. The outcome left both clubs with 1-1 records at the end of the first week of Inter-Ac League competition. SCH rose to 8-3-1 overall, while Haverford departed with an 8-2 mark (the Fords’ other loss had come at Shipley School a month earlier).

“We prepared all week for this kind of game,” revealed SCH head coach Joe DiSalvo. “We knew going into the game that we were going to give up possession. We know their style, which is pretty similar to what we saw last year. Our scoring chances were going to be few and far between, and if we capitalized on one of them, we were going to be primarily sitting in [on defense]. It wasn’t the prettiest game, but we knew that if we scored first, we’d have to try and win the game at 1-0.”

Haverford, which had beaten perennial national power St. Benedict’s Prep (Newark, N.J.) three weeks earlier, fields many highly-skilled players and several strong shooters.

“Our game plan was to try and shut down their key players,” said Williams, who is a tri-captain for the Blue Devils along with fellow seniors José Contreras and Peter Davis.

“We knew they were going to be good technically. We just wanted to do what we could up top and make the most of our scoring opportunities, because there wouldn’t be a lot of them.”

The Blue Devils spent much of the afternoon defending their one-goal lead against repeated attacks by the Fords. In addition to actual corner kicks, Haverford also has junior Jimmy Tricolli to heave throw-ins to the front of the goal from well up the sidelines. But almost every time the visitors sent a long airborne ball into the box, it was grabbed by SCH junior goalie Sam McDowell. In addition to the 10 saves credited to him in his fourth shutout this fall, he denied the Fords many other chances by pulling down these aerials from the outside.

Speaking of his two-time All-Inter-Ac goalie, Coach DiSalvo said, “Sam had an okay game against GA, but before this [Haverford] game we talked to him and said we think you’re the best goalie in the league, and these are the games when we need you to show that. He was just a beast in the box today – he got to almost every corner kick and throw-in. He’s got the reflexes and the size, he’s physical, and he’s fearless.”

SCH had lost to visiting Germantown Academy in the Inter-Ac season opener three days earlier. A first strike by Blue Devils junior Blake Greenhalgh was answered by Patriots senior Noah Schleicher before halftime, then another senior, James Rueter, gave GA the game winner in the second half.

“We’re not a team that likes to chase the game,” DiSalvo related, “and after it was 1-1 at halftime, we pushed up to get another goal. We got ourselves a little stretched out and they came up and scored on us. Today we stayed more compact and it helped us defensively, though it did limit us offensively.”

If the first week’s results are an accurate indicator, Inter-Ac soccer fans are going to witness a lot of tooth-and-nail tussles this season. GA went on to lose to Malvern on Friday (2-0), ending the week at 1-1 along with SCH, Haverford, and also Penn Charter, which fell to the Fords on Tuesday (5-1) but rebounded to beat Episcopal, 1-0.

Malvern and Episcopal had tied on Tuesday (1-1), so Malvern was the only unbeaten team after just two league games, sporting a 1-0-1 record.

As Friday’s match in Chestnut Hill got underway in cool, overcast conditions, the action flowed evenly up and down the field. In one of the assaults by the home team, the Blue Devils brought the ball in from the left wing and a crowd of players from both teams flowed into the penalty area.

SCH junior Tim Booth got a foot on the ball and it appeared to deflect off a Haverford defender, bouncing laterally across the middle of the box.

“The ball was bouncing and I chested it down,” Williams related. “A guy came right across my body and I got a quick shot off, and it went in.”

Williams has become skilled at quickly recognizing an opening and taking action. The goal was his 16th of the 2014 season, and he has assisted on four others.

“Last year I was a center back, so I didn’t get many chances to score,” he pointed out. “This year I’ve been practicing a lot on just finishing, and it’s been working.”

Quickly down a goal, the Fords were annoyed, but not rattled. Almost the entire game still lay ahead, and they had scored 23 goals over the first nine outings of a very challenging schedule.

A few minutes later, visiting junior Jerry Karalis sent a threatening serve towards the Blue Devils’ cage, but this ball, like so many others lofted in by Haverford, disappeared into the mitts of McDowell. On a well-aimed corner kick midway through the half, visiting 11th-grader Senan Farrelly got his head on the ball, but the attempt was not on-goal.

Soon after this, a rush into the right side of the box was foiled by SCH’s Davis. A throw-in from the right sideline produced a hard, low shot that necessitated one of McDowell’s more impressive saves, then he was up in the air once more to grab the ball on a long free kick by the Fords.

On a similar restart for SCH at the other end, sophomore Jack Lamb put the ball in play but the Devils were quickly whistled for a foul.

McDowell denied Haverford on a direct kick and on a Tricolli toss right to the mouth of the goal, and the half ended with a 1-0 Blue Devil lead still up on the board.

The second period featured even more frequent and frenzied attacks by the Fords, although SCH spent some short spells on offense. Two minutes in, the Devils’ McDowell dove to deflect a header off of a long direct kick by visiting senior Shane McBride, and the resulting corner kick didn’t yield a shot for Haverford.

The Blue Devils also came up empty when they were awarded two consecutive free kicks with about five minutes gone.

Haverford junior Shane Bradley uncorked what was probably the hardest shot of the game soon after that, but McDowell dove towards the right post to make the stop. With 10 minutes elapsed, Haverford attacked in transition, and the Blue Devils’ Davis blocked a shot by Fords senior Brandon Shima. Davis, Springside Chestnut Hill’s tallest back, headed away several threatening serves later on.

After SCH survived two Haverford corner kicks that were sandwiched around a dangerous throw-in, the play was largely confined to the middle of the field for a brief stretch.

After that, McDowell punched away another corner kick and Haverford sent a direct kick into the Devils’ wall of defenders, and the midway point of the period arrived with the Chestnut Hill lads clinging tenaciously to their slim lead.

On the sideline, DiSalvo was feeling a little more confident.

“Wednesday and Thursday we practiced playing for 20 minutes with a one-goal lead,” he revealed, “so once we got to 20 minutes and it was still 1-0, we knew we just had to execute.”

With 19 minutes left on the ticker, Haverford junior Grant Yu pounded a shot four feet over the SCH crossbar. With the clock down at 15 minutes, feared Fords forward Connor Gregory ran onto a teammate’s pass and dribbled in near the middle of the 18 yard line, but Blue Devils junior Billy Harris arrived for a timely slide tackle.

For the next five minutes, the SCH side simply seemed to be playing kick-away to fend off the Fords, but the Blue Devils regained their form after that. With 10 minutes left, the hosts couldn’t get a shot on a corner kick, but they did launch one off of a free kick three minutes later. The visiting keeper, junior Quinn Letter, came up with a big save to deny the Devils an insurance goal.

The home crowd gasped when, with five minutes left, McDowell dove to make a save and was still on the ground as the ball rolled loose out towards the right side of the box. By the time a Haverford forward caught up with it, though, the shot had to be taken from an unlikely angle and McDowell was back in position.

After more than an hour of fighting for the survival of their one-goal lead, the Blue Devils finished strong, earning a direct kick and two corners in the closing minutes.

The last time the two teams had played was in the semifinal round of the 2013 Pennsylvania Independent Schools Tournament, where SCH led twice in the second half before eventually losing on penalty kicks. Haverford had forced overtime by scoring with under five minutes to go in regulation.

DiSalvo remarked, “With about three minutes left today I reminded them – I said remember last year and don’t give anything up.”

The Devils didn’t, and came away with a confidence-building early season victory.