by Tom Utescher
Last Wednesday night, the lights in the Immaculata University stadium went dark midway through the first half of the Pa. Independent Schools championship game in boys’ soccer. After 10 minutes illumination was restored, but when play resumed the outlook didn’t grow brighter for defending champion Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, as fifth-seeded Hill School quickly scored the game’s first goal and maintained its 1-0 lead until halftime.
SCH, seeded third in the PAIS tournament this year, stirred up plenty of offensive activity during the opening period, but near misses and post shots aren’t recorded on the scoreboard. The Blue Devils made good on more of their chances in the second half, although it took a while.
Once senior Peter Kapp put in the equalizer with a little over 18 minutes remaining, SCH was rolling. Drexel University recruit Philip Burckhardt would score twice as the clock descended from 10 to five minutes.
In 2017, the Blue Devils had knocked off Hill in the PAIS title game, 2-0, and this time their two-goal triumph came through a 3-1 final score.
Last year, SCH went into the PAIS championship game as the newly-crowned Inter-Ac champion. This season SCH was a close runner-up to 2018 league champ Haverford School, which was seeded second for the Independent Schools tournament but lost to number 10 Kiski School in the quarterfinals (4-3).
The Blue Devils, who had overcome Germantown Academy in the first round (1-0) and Malvern Prep in the quarterfinal round (3-0), defeated Kiski 1-0 in a semifinal game in Chestnut Hill on Nov. 8.
Episcopal Academy dropped from first place to third place in the Inter-Ac over the second half of the league season, but at the time when the PAIS bracket was set up, the Churchmen were doing well enough to merit the number one seed for the tournament.
Drawing a bye in the first round (as did Haverford), EA then succumbed by a 2-1 score to ninth-ranked Mercersburg Academy, which in turn lost to fellow Mid-Atlantic Prep league member Hill, 2-0, in the semifinals. Earlier, the Hill Rams had become the 2018 MAPL champions.
In the Indy Schools championship match, Burckhardt and SCH senior classmate Luke Greenberg had already made a number of attacks by the time the lights clicked off with 21:41 remaining in the first half. They were very close several times, but couldn’t herd the ball into the Rams’ pen.
When play resumed after the black-out, a midfield pass from junior Dane Harmaty sent Greenberg on a dash down to the right endline, and when he made a pass across front of the goal Kapp was not quite able to get a firm foot on the ball at the far post.
Coming back upfield on its own right wing, Hill delivered the ball up to freshman Noah Toole, who dribbled past the last SCH defender and scored with 18:37 remaining in the period. SCH goalie Owen Elliott, a senior signing with Penn State, would keep a clean sheet the rest of the way.
SCH attacked right away after this, but couldn’t score, and at the other end the Blue Devils weathered a Hill corner. Next, a run down the right flank by Burckhardt ended with a shot that angled wide of the left post.
“Our game plan going in,” the senior explained, “was to put the ball out wide and challenge the outside backs, and we definitely did that.”
The clock cut into the final 10 minutes of the half, and SCH survived two breakaway threats by Hill’s speedy Zach Barrett. The Rams junior fired high the first time, then hit the left post on a wide open shot less than two minutes later.
Back on offense, SCH had Greenberg boot a right-to-left shot that just failed to catch the inside of the far post, going wide. Junior Scott Bandura, near the left post, almost volleyed in a serve from the right by Kapp, and in the closing minutes the Blue Devils’ Harmaty put a header right into the Rams’ crossbar. Hill still led 1-0 at the intermission.
Brian Zalasky, the SCH head coach and also a school faculty member, told his team at halftime that despite the score there were reasons to be encouraged about the events of the opening period.
“Mr. Z. said in the locker room that we got good shots and we were just unlucky,” Burckhardt related. “He said to continue what we were doing and one of those was going to go in, and then another one would go in. We felt confident, because it wasn’t like we had a dead first half.”
Hill School had its own plans for the second period, and began as the aggressor. After a few runs, Hill had a restart on a direct kick lobbed in from the outside. In the box, Burckhardt reached the ball first and kicked it high in the air back over the goal, and the Rams didn’t get off a shot on the resulting corner kick.
SCH had the ball down in front of the goal a few times after that, sending one pass right across mouth of the cage even while working through a yellow card that was dispensed with 29 minutes left to play. Soon after that, the Rams were able to steer Burckhardt wide as he tried to penetrate up the middle, and Hill also handled an SCH corner kick to stay ahead in the game.
With a little over 19 minutes left, the Pottstown pack missed a chance to reinforce its lead as a hard shot by freshman Sam Beckett missed on the right. Soon after that, Hill’s troubles really began.
SCH’s Kapp was able to receive the ball on the run as he headed for the Rams’ 18-yard line on the left side.
“Owen punted the ball, and then Dane sorted of flicked it up to me with his head,” Kapp related.
The senior finished the play to tie the match with 18:19 on the clock. SCH threatened again on a well-placed long serve by Bandura, but the ball was punched away by Hill goalie Alan Kim, a junior from South Korea.
With the clock now digging into the final 15 minutes, Burckhardt shot the ball over the goal at one end, and the Blue Devils fended off a Hill corner kick at the other.
As SCH attacked with a little under 10 minutes left, Harmaty blasted a shot right up the middle that was blocked by Hill’s Kim, but the Rams’ keeper could not hold the ball. It rolled out to the left of the cage, where Burckhardt closed in to put the ball away. The winning goal was now in the books with 9:31 to go.
Just over five minutes remained when Bandura and Burckhardt got loose on a two-on-one breakaway for SCH. Moving into the offensive third on the right flank, Bandura made the Rams defender commit and then shunted the ball over to Burckhardt, who was able to pick his spot from the left side of the box. The final tally appeared on the board with 5:17 remaining, and the apparent ease with which this goal was scored made it clear which team was now in command.
Although Hill kept battling and had a few late chances on restarts, the count was still 3-1 when the final horn went off.
When the Blue Devils won in 2017, they knew they stood a good chance of repeating because the junior class was so talented.
But as Burckhardt related, “We still lost a bunch of seniors, and we had some returning guys hurt right at the start of the season, so that was a challenging time for us. We’d have two freshmen in the back, or two freshmen in the midfield.
“As the season went on,” he continued, “the young guys showed they were ready to step up. I think that came from the really intense practices that Mr. Z. organized, and from the idea that not everyone’s spot on the team was guaranteed. We all worked hard and tried to make each other better.”
After his team’s victory over Kiski on Nov. 8, Coach Zalasky was asked to comment on the fact that three of the four teams in the semifinal round of the tournament were from boarding schools.
“Those schools have some resources that we don’t have, and I’m sure they have different challenges, too,” he responded. “The way that our program is structured, we have seven or eight guys who play soccer year-round and then a lot of multi-sport guys who work hard at performing their particular roles. It makes me proud of our team, the way that we’ve been able to pull those pieces together.”