Guarded by Episcopal Academy’s Laila Payton (#20), SCH senior Emily McNesby (right) prodded the ball past EA goalie Hannah Moraiarty (lower left), but as the ball rolled toward the goal line, Ally Wilchusky would clear the ball out for the Churchwomen. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

In 2016, the girls of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy finished the Inter-Ac soccer season with a record of 4-7-1. Last week, the 2017 Blue Devils put themselves in a position to play for the league championship.

At the start of the week, Inter-Ac leader Episcopal Academy owned a mark of 7-2 in league play, while SCH was 6-2-1 and Baldwin School, which had one more game left to play than the others, was 5-2-1.

The Blue Devils and the Baldwin Bears had tied, 1-1, at the end of September, but last Tuesday Springside Chestnut Hill went on the road and hung a third Inter-Ac loss on the Bears with a 3-1 decision. On the same afternoon Episcopal had rolled over Notre Dame, 6-0, but if SCH could beat the visiting Churchwomen in Maguire Stadium on Friday, they would saddle EA with a third defeat and could clinch the league championship in their last Inter-Ac game against Agnes Irwin on October 31.

This was not to be. After fending off numerous Blue Devil assaults in the opening period, Episcopal scored early in the second half and maintained its 1-0 edge until the final horn. Even if the Churchwomen lost their last league game (also against Agnes Irwin), the resulting final record of 9-3 would still keep them ahead of the best possible tally SCH could produce, which is now 8-3-1.

“We were hoping to win the Inter-Ac because we knew we had a good shot,” second-year SCH head coach Maria Kosmin said after Friday’s match. “We still finished a lot better in the league than last year, but I just wanted more for them.

“It could’ve gone either way,” she continued, “though they’re a good team and once they get rolling they’re hard to stop. They play the ball well out of the back, and their keeper came up big for them.”

In the Baldwin game a few days earlier, Maryland-bound SCH senior Emily McNesby had scored twice, reaching 101 goals for her high school career.

“She was on fire against Baldwin,” Kosmin related. “She created a lot of chances today, too, but there were some unlucky shots and good defense by Episcopal.”

The Churchwomen had been Inter-Ac champions in 2015 and were the runner-up to Penn Charter last fall.

“We had high expectations going into this season,” EA head coach Andy Fraggos said, “but we couldn’t foresee the number of injuries we’d have.”

One projected starter was knocked out with an ACL tear before the season began, and more recently three other starters were sidelined. This contributed to a bumpy stretch a few weeks ago, when EA went from 7-0 to 7-2 with losses to Penn Charter and Baldwin. The team began to adjust as the remaining starters took their game up a notch and some young players did a good job of filling the gaps.

One consistent asset was senior goalie Hannah Moriarty, who would compile 11 saves at Springside Chestnut Hill while also swallowing up a number serves and through passes before a shot could be taken.

Episcopal made the initial approach on offense, sending the ball across the 18-yard line to be grabbed by Sena Houessou-Adin, the junior who started in goal for SCH. McNesby’s first shot veered from the right of the box out past the upper left corner of the EA cage, then when a charge up the left wing by sophomore Maddie Niebish led to a corner kick, the ball ended up going out across the far endline off of the Blue Devils.

About nine minutes in, a ball launched from the middle of the box by freshman JoJo McShane was saved by Episcopal’s Moriarty a little under the crossbar on the right. Soon after that, Moriarty tipped the ball up into the bar on an outside shot by McNesby, and the hosts had nobody following up to get a shot off the rebound.

The visiting keeper then intercepted a pass between McNesby and McShane in the left side of the box, and as the midpoint of the first period arrived, a shot from above the middle of the 18 by McNesby was well off target outside the left post.

After Anna Salvucci (below) scored a goal for Episcopal early in the second half, SCH seniors Grace Rorke (top) and Marissa Brown wanted to make sure she didn’t get to another ball in front of the Blue Devils’ goal. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Just after the 20-minute mark, speedy junior Olivia Dirks made an attack for EA down to the left endline and then centered the ball, but it was stopped at the near post by the SCH defense. McNesby floated a very long shot in at the Churchwomen’s goal, but once again Moriarty ended up with the ball in her hands.

The visitors advanced along SCH’s right endline with about 16 minutes left in the half, but they let the ball get away from them out of bounds. SCH then went back up into the offensive third for a few minutes. Senior Destiny Rogers made one of her long, dangerous throw-ins from the right sideline, and although McNesby strained upward, she couldn’t quite get her head on the ball. A sophomore defender for Episcopal, Laila Payton, used her height to help disrupt aerial plays by the Blue Devils.

On a sortie by the Churchwomen, SCH keeper Houessou-Adin grabbed the ball and then sent it upfield for a counterattack. Trying to dribble past some EA backs above the 18, the Blue Devils’ McShane got spun around and the SCH fans in the bleachers screamed for a whistle, but no foul was called.

Though the ball ended up going out off of the Churchwomen, the Devils couldn’t muster a shot on the resulting corner kick. With under eight minutes left McNesby came in along the endline, and with a well-timed poke of her foot, Moriarty deflected the ball out of harm’s way.

After another Springside Chestnut Hill corner kick went by without a shot and the clock dropped down below six minutes, SCH freshman defender Esther Lamb disrupted two threatening Episcopal advances into the right side of the box. In the final minute, SCH’s Niebish crossed the ball from down low on the left, but Moriarty snatched it up to end the half with a pair of zeroes still on the scoreboard.

“Our game plan was to get through the first half with zero goals against,” Episcopal’s Fraggos said. “In the two games we lost, we gave up all five goals just in the first period. We emphasized to our team ‘Let us live to fight the second half’ and that’s what they did.”

The lay-out of the SCH field added to the importance of this accomplishment; the Churchwomen had been defending with the sun in their faces in the opening period. Now, with the angle of the orb even lower, SCH would have to squint through the glare in the second half.

For the second round, the Blue Devils moved freshman Julia Wilbekaitis into the goal cage, as they’ve been doing much of the season. The ebb and flow of play continued, with the Churchwomen now spending more time on the attack than they did in the first period.

In the initial five minutes, each team missed a shot wide to the right. Later, on an incursion along the left flank, McShane tried to center the ball for McNesby, but Episcopal picked off the pass and countered.

The Churchwomen took the ball to the right endline, and when senior Brooke Kelly crossed it inside, junior Anna Salvucci (a South Carolina recruit) was waiting at the near post to punch the ball into the net.

“We went over in practice the way that they score,” related Coach Kosmin. “They cross the ball and try to finish, and we just left Anna open and she put the ball away.

“They didn’t seem to have a lot of answers for our offense in the first half,” Kosmin continued, “but we just couldn’t score. In the second half they got a little burst of energy and we ran out of gas a little bit. We were missing [junior] Nayah Moore, who helps give us more depth. I know they have injuries, too, but their main players stepped it up once they got the lead and helped them hold it.”

The lone goal went up on the board with 31:32 remaining. A little later the Blue Devils had an opportunity on a restart, but their direct kick was blocked and the ball cleared out. After that, the remainder of the second 10 minutes of the half featured a steady stretch of offensive pressure by EA, but few shots on-frame.

Just past the middle of the period, EA keeper Moriarty saw activity pick up at her end of the pitch. She saved a hard shot from the left side of the box by Springside Chestnut Hill junior Mo’ne Davis, and also handled a ball lofted in toward the crossbar by McNesby.

She then scrambled to retrieve a rolling loose ball resulting from an SCH free kick, and on a serve soon after that she leapt up to punch the ball out of the box just as imposing Blue Devils senior Grace Rorke was about to get her head on it. Another serve that showed promise also failed to yield a shot for the home team.

EA took some heat off its defense by attacking, but SCH’s young Wilbekaitis kept it a one-goal affair. She stopped a low shot by Dirks near the right post, then batted a high one over the top of the cage. With a bit more than three minutes to go, SCH fans thought at last they were going to celebrate a tying goal when McNesby wrapped her foot around EA’s Payton to poke the ball past a sprawling Moriarty a few feet away.

Getting a chance to play a defensive role in this high-stakes game, Episcopal freshman Ally Wilchusky came through in the clutch, filling in behind her keeper to clear the ball away almost at the goal line.

The Devils had another opportunity on a corner play, but some intended trickery backfired when they got their signals crossed and Dirks took the ball away. Still, there was another chance for SCH in the final minute. The ball was lobbed into the box off of a free kick, and it was headed out again by Episcopal’s Payton. Soon, the game was over.

“We were tired, but at no point did my girls give up,” Kosmin commented. “We still had a chance with 20 seconds left; they gave it all they had.”

Momentarily disappointed, the Blue Devils’ spirits could be buoyed by recalling the end of their 2016 campaign. Finishing under .500 in the league, they caught fire in the Pennsylvania Independent Schools tournament and went all the way to the finals.