SCH freshman JoJo McShane (foreground) keeps her eyes on the ball while she’s shadowed by Penn Charter senior Gi DeMarco. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Meeting last Friday afternoon in their league opener, the girls’ soccer squads from host Springside Chestnut Hill Academy and visiting Penn Charter were considered strong contenders for the 2017 Inter-Ac title, and there was a bit of personal history involved, as well.

Late in the 2016 season, Penn Charter officially clinched the league championship by soundly beating the Blue Devils, 5-0, on their own field.

Three days later, it was the turn of SCH to appear in the visitors’ role as the teams converged in the semifinal round of the Pennsylvania Independent Schools tournament. Pulling off a major upset by knocking off the Quakers, 1-0, Springside Chestnut Hill went on to play in the PIAS finals, losing 1-0 to Westtown School.

In the first engagement between the teams in 2017, the scoreboard at SCH’s Maguire Stadium displayed a 1-0 halftime score, thanks to senior Marissa Brown’s marker for the Blue Devils. In the initial 20 minutes of the second half, senior Emily McNesby and junior Nayah Moore gave the home team a 3-0 advantage. After junior goalie Sena Houessou-Adin made the most difficult of her five saves in the game to preserve her shutout, the 4-0 final score appeared on the board when freshman JoJo McShane struck with a little under nine minutes to go.

Springside Chestnut Hill remained unbeaten and unscored-upon, now with a 4-0 record and a goals for/against total of 24-0. Penn Charter came away with an overall mark of 2-2.

The Quakers presented proven offensive threats in the form of leading scorer and 2016 league MVP Giovanna “Gi” DeMarco (who will sign with Wake Forest University), and freshman Kait Haughey, who started for PC last fall as an eighth-grader.

Second-year SCH head coach Maria Kosmin pointed out, “Last year we man-marked a lot of teams. I was new to the league and I didn’t know what to expect, so we played very defensively. I think the difference with our team this year is that I have the players to be able to attack other teams. I don’t need to put five in the midfield like last year.”

She said that this will enable her to take some of the burden off of the Blue Devils’ own blue chip senior and high scorer, Maryland recruit Emily McNesby.

“I can give Em some help up top now,” Kosmin said, “and we can attack from different areas of the field.”

Despite this general philosophical shift in SCH strategy, it was Penn Charter who was the early aggressor last Friday, using its speed to drive up the center of the field.

As Kosmin explained later, “Our center mids are an eighth-grader (Olivia Myers) and a ninth-grader (McShane), and this was their first Inter-Ac game. It took some time in the first half for us to really get organized and not let them play through the middle. We talked about it at halftime, too.”

While Charter passed the ball up the field, SCH posed offensive threats on long balls delivered from the defensive end. With a little over a dozen minutes left in the half, the Quakers made another rush and actually had the ball rolling toward the goal behind Houessou-Adin, but senior back Lucy Lamb cleared the ball out just in time.

Lamb was playing solid defense along with unrelated freshman Esther Lamb and the two Rorke sisters, senior Grace (who’ll play for Dartmouth) and sophomore Abbie.

Going after an airborne ball, SCH senior Lucy Lamb (left) climbs up the back of PC freshman Janae Stewart. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Brown, another SCH senior, had missed her junior season due to knee surgery, and even now she was being used sparingly, usually coming in late in each half of a game. Going by the football markings on the field, Brown was a little beyond the 15-yard line and well outside of the left hash marks when she volleyed the ball into the far side of the Quakers’ cage. Scored with 10:51 remaining in the first half, this would prove to be the game-winning goal.

As the second half got underway the Quakers repeatedly advanced up toward the Blue Devils’ 18-yard-line, but they rarely got past it.

“I give our defense credit, because they kept [Penn Charter] from getting much of anything going on offense in the second half,” Coach Kosmin said.

The home crowd tensed up when PC’s DeMarco made a threatening run about four minutes into the new period, but Lamb slid in to take the ball off of the fellow senior’s feet. A little later, an SCH foray along the right wing resulted in a shot by McNesby that strayed outside of the far post.

Instead of serving and chasing, the Blue Devils were beginning to move the ball with greater precision and purpose.

On another advance by the Blue Devils with close to nine minutes elapsed, sophomore Madi Neibish controlled the ball in the center of the field 10 yards above the 18 and explored her options. She dished it toward the top left corner of the box as McNesby made a run. The Quakers’ Mackenzie Listman, a senior who first started in goal as a freshman, saw the danger and charged out toward the ball, but McNesby beat her to it and directed a shot into the right side of the cage.

With 28 minutes remaining a shot by SCH sophomore Alysa Akins was blocked and deflected out of danger by Charter freshman Kaitlyn Hnatkowsky, and when the visitors were awarded a direct kick at the other end five minutes later, DeMarco’s hard-hit shot carried over the cage.

Back on the attack, SCH got a similar result on an outside shot launched by junior Mo’ne Davis. The Blue Devils regained possession of the ball around midfield and sent it ahead for Moore on a dash up the middle. Listman again came out of the PC cage, but Moore kept her dribble close and bypassed the keeper, tapping the ball in from near the left post for a 3-0 lead right around the middle of the period.

PC had another direct kick track too high and wide to the left, and after that junior Ally Paul shed an SCH defender but could not get her shot past Houessou-Adin. Next, the Quakers’ Haughey freed herself for an attempt in front of the left side of the cage with just over 10 minutes to go, and Houessou-Adin was able to dive and tip the ball just outside the post to keep the score 3-0.

The resulting corner kick by the visitors was hit too hard and sailed past everyone toward the right sideline. From there, Springside Chestnut Hill headed up on offense and got the ball to McShane on the run. The fiery freshman bolted up the middle and then flared to the right to shoot the fourth goal of the day for SCH.

On this unusually hot mid-September day, the depth of the Blue Devils’ bench was now really beginning to tell, and Penn Charter appeared drained of energy and enthusiasm during the final minutes. If PC’s Listman (nine saves) hadn’t held up well under steady pressure during this last stretch, the score might well have been more lopsided.

It’s still quite early in the season, but Springside Chestnut Hill has made a strong start in the league and overall. With some multi-year starters and impact players due to graduate next spring, Kosmin is particularly happy to see contributions coming from athletes in five different classes right now.

“The young girls who played last year gained a lot of confidence, and the new ones this year have soccer experience and they’re excited to see what the Inter-Ac’s like,” she said. “We have a lot of things to work on, but I’m comfortable with how we’re coming along.”

There is a good deal of a talent around the league this season, and a number of teams out there could trip up the initial frontrunners and allow other squads to erase the effects of an early setback. Mental toughness and perseverance are bound to be important qualities.