Blue Devils eighth-grader Olivia Myers (left) and Episcopal’s Laila Payton follow the bouncing ball. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Last week, Springside Chestnut Hill Academy’s second straight appearance in the Pennsylvania Independent Schools girls’ soccer championship game ended in another 1-0 decision. Unlike in 2016, this time the Blue Devils came out on top.

They’d already beaten the team that defeated them last year, Westtown, in the semifinals of this year’s tournament. In last Wednesday’s final under the lights at Immaculata University, SCH avenged a pair of regular-season losses to Episcopal Academy, the squad which had won the Inter-Ac League title over the Blue Devils earlier in the month.

Two of the team’s major offensive forces played a role in the lone goal of the PAIS title bout. Top scorer Emily McNesby, a blue chip University of Maryland recruit, maneuvered in across the middle of the 18-yard line and fired. The keeper blocked the shot, but sophomore Maddie Niebish was there to boot in the rebound, tacking the eventual final score on the board just two minutes and 51 seconds into the match.

Episcopal, seeded first for the PAIS tournament, had swept its home/away Inter-Ac League series with SCH with a pair of one-goal victories. In both games, the Blue Devils could not cash in on a number of early scoring chances, and paid the price.

“If you don’t score, you get scored upon,” pronounced Dartmouth-bound defender Grace Rorke, a team co-captain along with McNesby. “This time we wanted to score early – come out pressuring them and try to get a goal in the first five or 10 minutes. To finally get a win against the team we thought was the most competitive in the Inter-Ac is a big accomplishment.”

Second-year SCH head coach Maria Kosmin related, “We watched video of the other games against them. Their keeper came up with some big saves against us, but there also were rebounds that we didn’t follow up on. Today Em had a great shot and the keeper [senior Hannah Moriarty] made a great save, and Maddie got in there for the rebound.”

Each team enjoyed a first-round bye for the postseason tournament, and in the quarterfinals the Blue Devils knocked out 10th-seeded Hill School, 2-0, while EA eliminated Agnes Irwin, the ninth seed, 3-0.

Defending PAIS champ Westtown, SCH’s nemesis in 2016, was seeded third this time around. The Moose fell to the Blue Devils, 4-0, in one of the November 9 semifinal games, while in the other one the Episcopal Churchwomen ground out a 1-0 victory against fourth-seeded Penn Charter.

Last week, Episcopal came into the Indy Schools final with an overall record of 17-3 but without junior forward Anna Salvucci, who has made a verbal commitment to the University of South Carolina. Salvucci, who had scored the only goal in the second regular-season match with SCH, was injured in a clash with Main Line rival Agnes Irwin.

Still, Episcopal had a lot of firepower remaining, and after scoring less than three minutes into the final, Springside Chestnut Hill would have to try and remain ahead for just about an entire game.

Kosmin commented, “I’ve been confident in our defense all year; we only allowed about eight goals in the Inter-Ac. Of course Episcopal has a number of dangerous players, and anything can happen. We wanted to limit corner kicks and other plays they could capitalize on.”

The Blue Devils pose with their championship plaque. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Two talented goalies anchored the Springside Chestnut Hill defense; the locals followed their nearly season-long pattern of having junior Sena Houessou-Adin start the game and then sending in freshman Julia Wilbekaitis for the beginning of the second half. Just in front of them, Rorke was playing along with her sophomore sister, Abbie, and her senior classmate, the tenacious Lucy Lamb. A great addition to the defensive unit has been Esther Lamb (no relation to Lucy), a freshman out of Norwood Fontbonne Academy. Tall and fast, the NFA grad outsped Episcopal’s quickest players to loose balls all evening on Wednesday.

One of the accomplished EA attackers, junior Olivia Dirks, made SCH fans nervous with a charge and a shot around the middle of the first half, but Houessou-Adin elevated to gather in the ball in the air. The Blue Devils soon went up the field and had McNesby fire over the Episcopal crossbar.

With under 10 minutes left in the half, the 100-goal scorer was not quite able to square up for a solid shot after a long ball was driven up to the offense.

Springside Chestnut Hill weathered two late EA corner kicks, and the half ended with the 1-0 count still on the board. The Blue Devils were very much aware that Episcopal would have 40 more minutes to try to notch the equalizer.

“We were hoping to get another goal,” Rorke said. “That didn’t happen, but in any case we knew we had to be focused and stay on their strong players.”

One of the major threats, in the Devils’ eyes, was a sophomore for the Churchwomen, Raina Kuzemka.

“We didn’t man-mark her, but we made sure we knew where she was,” Rorke said. “We knew if we could slow her down, we could slow down most of their attack.”

As the second half got underway, an effective Springside defense proved to be simply pushing up on offense. The Blue Devils didn’t generate a shot on an early corner kick, but about five minutes in, freshman JoJo McShane made a blood-pumping run up the right wing. It ended with a good shot but an even better save by EA’s Moriarty, and McNesby’s follow-up ball went high.

SCH kept attacking into the second 10 minutes, but could not add to its lead despite taking a corner kick from each side. Episcopal began to change the flow of the play after this. A long free kick by the Churchwomen delivered the ball right to SCH’s Wilbekaitis. The Blue Devil defense denied shooting opportunities on a few other Episcopal rushes.

Niebish went back up and had a shot deflected by an EA back, making for an easy pick-up for Moriarty. With around 18 minutes left, SCH hit a through ball up toward McNesby, but she was whistled down for being offsides. An EA corner kick with a dozen minutes to go immediately curved out over the endline.

With the opposing goalie and a defender lying in a heap behind her, SCH sophomore Maddie Niebish reacts after scoring the game-winning goal in last Wednesday’s PAIS championship game. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

As the clock dipped into single digits, Lucy Lamb broke up an Episcopal attack on the ground, and later a served ball was headed away from the SCH goal by eighth-grader Olivia Myers. Soon, it was time to celebrate.

Last year, the Blue Devils finished under the .500 mark in the Inter-Ac and were regarded by some as upstarts when they caught fire in the PAIS tourney and reached the finals.

“This year, we felt like we belonged here,” Coach Kosmin said. “We felt we deserved it for how far we’ve come from being a team that really wasn’t on the radar in the Inter-Ac.”

In addition to Lucy Lamb, McNesby, and Grace Rorke, it was the final SCH appearance for Marissa Brown (who came back to start after knee surgery kept her sidelined in 2016), Destiny Rogers, and Bridget Hennessy.

Although the roster spans a five-grade spectrum, the team has become very close during the season. Before the game, the players were presented with “psych bags” by captains Rorke and McNesby, who wrote letters to each of their teammates. A team lunch on Wednesday afternoon had helped hone their focus.

Getting back to the PIAS finals had been one of the major goals all season long.

“We had a lot of players returning from last year, including a very good group of seniors who are strong leaders,” Kosmin said. “We’ll be a young team next year, so we wanted to accomplish as much as we could this season.”