SCH senior Maddie Niebish (left) crosses the ball inside from the right wing. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

In 2017, Springside Chestnut Hill Academy hosted Westtown School in a girls’ semifinal soccer match in the Pennsylvania Independent Schools tournament. With a 4-0 victory in that contest, the SCH Blue Devils moved on to the finals and captured the 2017 championship.

Both schools were eliminated in the quarterfinals of the 2018 PAIS tourney, but last Thursday, the Devils met the Westtown Moose in a semifinal contest once again. SCH had already made a 12-0 run through the Inter-Ac League to win the league championship.

The Blue Devils fell behind 1-0 in the first half against fourth-seeded Westtown. They tied the game with under six minutes to go in the second period, but the Moose immediately retook the lead and locked up the win, 2-1, ending the season for SCH.

Maria Kosmin, the Blue Devils’ fourth-year head coach, related that she told her players, “You’re disappointed now, but you can’t let this one loss take away from all the great things you did this season.”

SCH had opened its 2019 schedule with a loss to Archbishop Ryan High School, but between that contest and last week’s season swan song, the Blue Devils won 18 straight games. The Inter-Ac championship they captured was the school’s first ever in girls’ soccer.

The top seed for the Indy Schools tournament, SCH received a bye in the first round, then won a quarterfinal contest over number nine GA last Tuesday, 4-1. Junior JoJo McShane scored twice, and the other goals came from sophomore Maya McDermott and freshman Lisa McIntyre.

After Thursday’s game, Westtown was headed back to the PAIS finals for the first time since 2016. That year, the Moose claimed the championship with a 1-0 win over SCH, which had entered the tournament as the fifth seed after finishing 4-7-1 in the Inter-Ac.

The other finalist moving into this year’s championship game on Nov. 13 is Penn Charter, the third seed for the PAIS tournament. In their semifinal last Thursday, the Quakers won 3-0 over defending champ Episcopal Academy, which was the second seed for the tournament. For PC, goals from junior Kait Haughey and senior Sara Shipon were followed by an EA own-goal. The Charter girls would be returning to the PAIS finals after a four-year drought; in 2014, they took the title over Germantown Academy, 3-1.

PC still had another league game to play – its traditional match on the second Saturday of November against longtime school rival GA. Here, host PC took the lead on a goal by senior Maggie Boyes, and then GA had sophomore Lilly Funk tie the contest with 19 minutes remaining. The Quakers’ scoring leader, junior Janae Stewart, won a footrace to the ball in the right side of the GA box and scored with three-and-a-half minutes to go for a 2-1 PC victory.

Back on Oct. 29, the Blue Devils had completed their undefeated roll through the Inter-Ac with a 3-0 victory over Episcopal. Their PAIS tourney win over GA then set up a rematch with Westtown in last week’s tournament semifinal. In early October, the Devils had chalked up a 3-1 win over the Moose.

A charging Westtown Moose player knocks Blue Devil sophomore Lauren Sullivan (right) off the ball. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Westtown has a history of stepping up at playoff time, though, and last week at SCH, the Moose used an advantage in physical size and strength to throw the Devils off their game.

“We played into it,” Kosmin said. “I told the girls beforehand to keep the ball on the ground, but we got away from that. They were bigger and more physical than us, and having the ball in the air worked against us. We got pulled into trying to play their style. We played hard, but we didn’t play our regular game; we didn’t play smart.”

SCH made the first rush of the afternoon, but Westtown got off the first shot and the teams went back and forth for the first 25 minutes. After SCH junior goalie Julia Wilbekaitis made a diving save on a shot by the visitors with 14 minutes left in the half, the Blue Devils went up on attack for several minutes.

SCH’s McIntyre eluded several defenders as she drove into the box on the left, but had her shot saved by Westtown goalie Whitney Tracey. A skillful cross-field pass from McDermott to senior Maddie Niebish on the right wing led to a blocked shot that had the ball rolling loose in the left side of the box, but an offsides call stopped Springside.

With five minutes left in the half, McShane settled the ball in the middle of the box, but her shot was relatively soft and easily handled by Tracey. Westtown now came up the field rapidly, and some confusion among the SCH defense led to a penalty kick for the Moose.

Wilbekaitis blocked the PK, but the Blue Devils did not clear the loose ball out of the box. Westtown eighth grader Olivia Bley knocked the ball in for a 1-0 halftime lead for the Moose.

The Blue Devils weren’t particularly concerned about starting the second half down a goal, but they became more worried as the period progressed.

“There was a lot of screaming from the fans, and there were fouls and it turned into a war where I think we panicked and lost our heads a bit,” Kosmin said. “Instead of trying to put simple passes together, the girls tried to do too much and it didn’t help us.”

Westtown continued its physical play and drew four yellow cards in the second period, but different players were involved in each incident. SCH finally drew even with just over five minutes remaining, when McShane’s direct kick came back off the keeper and Niebish scored on the rebound.

The Moose attacked right away and earned a free kick of their own.

“It bounced off one of our girls inside and went straight to them, and they scored,” Kosmin recounted.

The Blue Devils had gotten away from the ground-based passing game that they’d employed with great success throughout most of the 2019 season, and they had paid the price against a savvy opponent.

Summing up the final outing for her 18-2 team, Kosmin said, “It was a learning experience, especially for our younger players. It was a game where it was hard not to get emotional and lose your cool a little bit. It was a lesson in how certain styles of play can affect what you do on the field.”