Mount St. Joseph’s Courtney Higginson (right) caught Nazareth Academy goalie Gina Pallanta moving towards the near post, so the MSJ junior shot into the far side of the cage to give the Magic a 3-2 edge in last Thursday’s match. Higginson scored again in overtime to seal a 4-3 Mount victory. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

When four straight victories at the start of the soccer season were followed by two recent setbacks, Mount St. Joseph Academy was eager to get back on the winning track in a league match at home last Thursday.

The Magic accomplished that goal, but they needed an extra 10 minutes or so to do it, defeating the Nazareth Academy Pandas, 4-3, on a goal scored early in the second “sudden victory” overtime period.

Junior Courtney Higginson hit the game winner, and earlier she had scored to put the Mount up 3-2 in the middle of the second half of regulation play. Nazareth (2-4 overall, 2-2 within the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies) never led in the game, but the Pandas recovered from a pair of early MSJ strikes to forge a 2-2 halftime tie, and later they forced overtime by knotting the score at 3-3 with under 10 minutes remaining in regulation play.

The first two goals for the hosts, which came only three minutes apart, were deposited by sophomore Maryanna Solecki and senior Meghan McCabe, who helped the Magic improve to 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the AACA. Like Nazareth, the Mounties had suffered their first league loss against Class AA PIAA state runner-up, Villa Joseph Marie.

Sophomore Meghan Keown, who for most of the season has split time in the goal with freshman keeper Charlotte Sands, went the distance in Thursday’s game to finish with 17 saves, while her Panda counterpart, Gina Pallanta, made 12 stops.

McCabe, a team co-captain along with fellow senior Lisa Roman, remarked “I think we came out very hard and then maybe let up a little. Nazareth really played well and fought us back hard. From when they tied it [2-2] it was a tough game the rest of the way, but we finished well and came back strong in overtime.”

Over the first 10 minutes, the contest had the makings of a pleasure cruise for the Magic. An early shot by McCabe was deflected wide to the right of the cage by a Panda player, setting up a Mount St. Joe corner kick from the left side. With clinical precision, Roman sent the checkered globe arcing towards the near post and right onto the head of Solecki, who nodded the ball into the upper left corner with just three minutes and 14 seconds elapsed.

With 33:22 still remaining in the opening period, the Magic went up 2-0. Higginson sent a pass across the 18 yard line from right to left and McCabe ran down the ball in time to shoot it past the Pandas’ Pallanta.

The atmosphere became more relaxed along the Mount sideline, and three minutes after the second goal, four MSJ subs were sent onto the field at the same time.

Nazareth didn’t fold its tents, though, and began to take the play to the Magic in the middle of the period. After one shot missed and another was saved by the Mount’s Keown, the visitors got on the board with 15:44 left in the first half. After sort of a little chip shot from the right wing, the ball took some low bounces in the right side of the box, and Keown was unable to charge out to reach it before the Pandas’ Sam Black arrived to launch a successful shot.

After several fruitless forays for the Magic offense, the visitors were back on the attack, and Michelle Nocitra dribbled in from the left to tie the bout, 2-2, with just 2:25 to go before halftime.

Realizing that the contest was not going to be a cakewalk, the Mounties picked up their level of play as the second half got underway, although it took awhile before the result showed up on the scoreboard. On a run up the right wing, Higginson beat a defender and drove into the box. She drew Pallanta towards her and then shot the ball over into the left side of the goal, making it 3-2 with 23:05 remaining in regulation.

Once again, the Pandas matched the Mount’s intensity, tying the match with 9:19 on the clock. In a one-on-one scramble for a loose ball near the right post, the foot of Nazareth’s Dom Misnik was quicker than the hands of the Magic’s Keown, and the match was all even at 3-3.

With four minutes left in regulation, Roman sent a Mount direct kick over the crossbar, and after that there were two near misses by Solecki. Nazareth made the Mount crowd gasp on a corner sequence that began with just 14 seconds to go. Off of the restart, the ball was kicked back out along the right endline by Magic junior Sarah Lynch, but the Pandas served the ball back inside to the left post. Keown was able to punch the ball out of the danger zone, and the game proceeded into overtime.

Neither team found the net during the first 10-minute “golden goal” segment, but the Mount was the clear aggressor. The Magic continued to attack right off the opening tap from center that started the second OT, and McCabe got off a long shot from just outside of the 18. The ball struck the right post, and MSJ’s Higginson had made a great off-the-ball run to be in position to drive home the rebound. Just 22 seconds into the second extra session, the battle was over.

“We didn’t know much about their players individually,” McCabe said, “but it’s usually a physical game with Nazareth and you have to keep your head. It’s always a battle, but I thought we did a good job.”

In addition to the scoring activity, it was entertaining to watch the Magic’s compact defensive dynamo, junior Mary Grace McIntyre. A returning starter who is outsized by almost everyone on the field, McIntyre never hesitates to charge into the thick of the action; at one point, she went through three Panda players one after the other as she brought the ball up the sideline.

With a dozen seniors having graduated from the 2011 team, the current Mount ballclub has had to rely not only on veterans like McIntyre, but on less experienced players who have taken on important roles.

“We have a pretty new line-up,” said McCabe, “but the younger girls have really stepped up and they’ve done a great job so far.”

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