During last Monday’s Pa. Indy semifinal, Penn Charter’s Jlon Flippens (right) shrugs off fellow freshman Emily Fryer of Agnes Irwin. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

They say that ultimately the journey is more important than the destination, and soon that realization will come for the girls of the Penn Charter varsity soccer team. The Quakers have been on a heck of ride over the past few weeks, although they didn’t end up exactly where they wanted to be.

After finishing a close second within the Girls Inter-Ac League, Charter began to eye up another championship as they continued to advance in the Pa. Independent Schools Tournament. On Monday, November 12, fourth-seeded PC prevailed over number eight Agnes Irwin in a 1-0 semifinal.

Two nights later on the artificial turf at Cabrini College, the Quakers held a 2-1 halftime advantage over defending champion Hill School. However, Hill leveled the count at 2-2 early in the second period, fended off numerous assaults by the Quakers, and then deposited a somewhat fluky game-winner with three minutes and 14 seconds left in the affair.

After Hill (15-4-1) opened the scoring, Charter’s Jlon Flippens tied the match, then in the final seconds of the first half fellow PC freshman Hannah Fox was thought to be the last Quakers player to touch the ball before it caromed into the goal off of a Blues defender. Hill would tie the match at 2-2 eight minutes into the second period.

In between that goal and the coup de grace, Charter (13-5-2) came up empty on a number of opportunities, including one shot that struck the right goalpost. Afterwards the stats that had been complied by Hill School – not PC – showed the Quakers with overall advantages in both shots (13-6) and corner kicks (14-2).

“Soccer can be a cruel game,” stated veteran PC coach Eddie Mensah. “It’s not won on possession or passing; it’s won on goals and tonight they had more goals than we did. I thought we played a lot better than we have all season. We had a lot of opportunities to score, but sometimes it’s just not written in the stars for you.”

Back in regular-season Inter-Ac games during October, Penn Charter first lost to league-leading Episcopal, 2-1, and later tied the Churchwomen, 1-1. After PC won its next-to-last league game, beating Notre Dame 4-2 on November 1, things got interesting as the tail end of the Inter-Ac schedule became ensnarled with the early rounds of the Indy tournament.

Charter notched a 3-0 victory over Abington Friends in the first round, then defeated Friends Schools League champ Friends Central in a November 8 quarterfinal, winning 3-2 on penalty kicks. In another quarterfinal match top-seeded Episcopal, who had received an opening-round bye, was immediately knocked out by Agnes Irwin, 2-1.

PC remained in the Indy tournament and Episcopal was out, but both teams still had one league game left to play. The Inter-Ac championship is determined through a point system derived from win/loss records, and if Episcopal lost on Friday, November 9 (playing Irwin again) and Charter topped Germantown Academy on Saturday, the Quakers would win the league.

Irwin scored first in that Friday match-up, but Episcopal rallied to win 2-1, capturing the league laurels outright. With the title out of reach, Charter forged a 0-0 draw with GA on Saturday, coming in second in the Inter-Ac with a record of 9-1-2, while the Patriots were third, at 7-3-2.

The Patriots had also been splitting time between their league obligations and the Indy tournament. Seeded sixth in the tourney, GA benefitted from a George School forfeit in the first round, then posted a quarterfinal 3-0 win at number three Mercersburg Academy, the only school in the tournament not located in the Southeastern corner of the state. In a November 8 semifinal, the Pats fell to Hill School, 1-0.

The closeness of this game was encouraging for the Penn Charter players, who had lost to Hill by a 4-0 count back on September 5. First, though, the Quakers would have to get past Agnes Irwin. The Owls may have finished fourth in the Inter-Ac, but they also had knocked out the top seed in the Pa. tournament, Episcopal.

“We knew we were going to have a tough game against them,” said co-captain Kelly Kubach, who has signed a National Letter of Intent to play lacrosse at the University of Michigan. “They’ve put up a good fight against us when we played them this year; they don’t make anything easy.”

Both teams came into the match with some significant injuries. PC junior Lauren Dimes, the leading scorer, was out with an ankle sprain she’d suffered during the tournament game against Friends Central. In addition, 11th-grader Julia Casasanto, who has a habit of slipping in goals while opponents are covering the Quakers’ big guns, broke her leg at GA just two days earlier. Girls Athletic Director Channing Weymouth chauffeured Casasanto in a golf cart so that she could take in some of Monday’s game.

Among several players out for Irwin was senior captain Anna Ludwick, who will sign on to play college soccer at George Mason University.

Irwin was the early aggressor in the Monday match-up, but PC soon evened out the flow of the play. Loose on a breakaway, an Irwin forward let the ball get a little too far in front of her, and PC’s senior goalie, Ashleigh Brown, scooped it up in the nick of time. Two fruitless corners for the Owls followed soon after that, then the Quakers attacked.

On a free kick from not far inside the midfield line, senior Emma Ebert (team co-captain along with Kubach) launched a ball that skipped past a few players as it entered the box. Flippens made a timely run onto the ball and scored inside the right post with 20:27 left in the first period. After that PC generated most of the offensive activity until the arrival of halftime.

Even so, Kubach said, “We knew we had to keep playing hard. They had some chances but the girls in the back came through for us. We have a lot of faith in each other.”

Irwin’s Hannah Keating, a freshman who forgot her jersey and wore the number of an injured senior, proved to be the Owls’ most dangerous player on this afternoon. Among other threats, she sent a beautiful cross in front of the PC cage midway through the second half, but had no teammates in position to score. Scoring bids were roughly equal after that, but neither club cashed in and the 1-0 tally held up to the final whistle.

Now, it was on to meet Hill School on Wednesday evening at Cabrini’s campus in Radnor. Peddie School had ended the Pottstown team’s two-year reign in the Mid-Atlantic Prep League, where the Blues finished 2-2-1 after a satisfying November 10 win over traditional rival Lawrenceville.

Having faced Hill earlier this fall, PC’s Mensah revealed, “We made some adjustments, because we knew they had two really fast strikers. The idea wasn’t to man-mark them but to prevent the ball from getting to them.”

The two Blues in question were Deana Mayza, who recorded a hatrick in September’s lopsided encounter with Charter, and fellow senior Catherine Macklin, who netted the other goal in that game. The versatile Mayza is signing with the University of Hartford for basketball. Some 80 percent of Hill students are boarders, but Macklin, from McLean, Va., is the only out-of-state soccer starter. The Blues start a total of five seniors.

While PC proved to be the superior ball-possession team in Wednesday’s match, the Hill tandem up front gave the Blues the ability to launch a quick strike at any time.

Hill, indeed, made two rushes at the outset, then Charter came back across midfield. Sophomore Maddie Mahoney sent the ball in near the right post, but Hill sophomore goalie Julia Hernan knocked the ball out over the endline. PC got no shot on the resulting corner, and later on back-to-back Quakers corners the second play produced a medium-paced shot by Ebert that Hernan caught near the left post.

The Blues’ keeper then stopped a long direct kick by Ebert, and Charter’s Flippens sent a shot outside the right post. On one of its first forays across midfield in several minutes, Hill had Mayza score on a breakaway with 22:35 left in the half. Brown blocked the shot when it first came off Mayza’s feet but the Blues senior stuffed in the loose ball.

Back on offense, the Quakers had two corner kicks come to naught, and at the far end Mayza missed wide left on a free kick for Hill. Before long, a PC through ball found Flippens about 12 yards out with her back to the cage. Turning, she dodged her defender and scored with 16:13 remaining.

As the half wound down, Mayza made another threatening run but was foiled by PC junior Leigh Steinberg, who played a great first half on defense. Kubach kicked the ball a little far to the left on a Charter shot, and on a Quakers corner with two-and-a-half minutes left Hernan, the Hill keeper, blocked a bouncing ball at the goal line.

The scoreboard clock was turned off for the final two minutes, but it was clear that very little time was remaining as PC made one more assault. Fox dribbled in from the left for a shot, and Hernan’s save sent the ball out over the endline for a corner kick on the left. On the restart, the airborne ball ping-ponged around and went in near the right post.

The players on the scene said the ball glanced in off of one of the Blues, but the refs said it was a regular shot. After conferring to make sure there was no offsides infraction, they declared the goal official.

“I’m not sure if I was the last girl on our team to touch [the ball] before it went it,” Fox said. “but I know I had the shot that got us the corner kick.”

Penn Charter continued to press forward when the second round got underway, but Hill regrouped and came upfield to score with 8:07 elapsed. Making a run through the left side of the box, Sara Graham had the ball delivered to her by her senior classmate, Mayza, and tied the game for the defending champs.

As the half went on, PC’s Mensah said, “We cheated up a little bit because we didn’t want to go into overtime. We had just Steph (Soroka, a junior) and Dom (DeMarco, a freshman) in the back. That created more chances for us up front, but we didn’t capitalize.”

True, the Quakers did everything but finish. Suited up for the first time since her ankle injury, Dimes had a shot saved at the right post soon after Hill’s tying goal. She sent a header wide to the right off of a long free kick by Ebert, and later, on a boot by Dimes from the same side of the box, Hill’s Hernan blocked the shot and then scrambled to cover the loose ball in front of the cage.

Right in the middle of the period, PC had three corners in a row. The Blues knocked the ball out over the endline the first two times, and on the third try, a cross through the goalmouth found no PC shooters to punch the ball home. A little later, a groan of frustration was heard from the Quakers’ crowd when Flippens beat two backs in the box only to have her shot hit the right post with about 13 minutes remaining.

In almost every other way, PC played a masterful game of soccer throughout the evening. Passes were made with a purpose, and overall decisions were solid. Players recognized when to switch the field of play in transition and how to time tackles on defense, and when necessary they back-passed with accuracy and assurance. An admirable feat, especially in light of the fact that PC has been starting three freshmen and at least one sophomore much of the time.

“The freshmen now have the confidence to play really well in a big game like this,” Mensah said. “All the younger girls grew a lot as players over the season, and they’ll all be back.”

For seniors Brown, Ebert, and Kubach the conclusion of Wednesday’s game was a hard blow – it could not be otherwise.

Hill School’s offense came in dangerous short spurts in between longer periods of PC possession, but Soroka and DeMarco played exceptionally against the Blues’ transition in the second half.

With under three-and-a-half minutes left to play, Soroka cleared the ball out of the box for PC, but Hill sent it back down from near midfield while many players from both sides were still in Charter’s defensive third. From out past the corner of the box on the left, Blues junior Keeley Spiess sent sort of a blooping serve in towards the near side of the goal. The ball took a high bounce, hung up in the air a little, and then slipped down under the Quakers’ crossbar, untouched by either team.

With 3:14 remaining, the 3-2 final was up in lights.

Charter had a corner kick from the left with under a minute to go, but Hill cleared the ball out of the box. The Quakers booted it back inside, then the ball went out over the left endline as time expired. Runners-up in both the Girls Inter-Ac and the Independent Schools Championships, the PC booters will have some clear-cut goals when their new journey begins in 2013.

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