Scott Bandura, a Blue Devils senior, looks to pass the ball around Haverford’s Brennan McBride (#32). (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

With less than 20 minutes to go in last Thursday’s Pennsylvania Independent Schools soccer semifinal, it looked like host Springside Chestnut Hill Academy would be returning to the tournament finals to try and capture its third championship in a row.

The second-seeded Hillers were still holding a 1-0 lead they’d earned in the first half, but then third-seeded Haverford School tied the match with less than 16 minutes remaining. Scoring again less than four minutes later, the Fords held on for a 2-1 win.

The two teams had split a pair of 1-0 games during the Inter-Ac season, and now the Fords would go on to the finals on Nov. 13. They would face the top-seeded Hill School, which defeated number nine Germantown Academy 2-1 in the quarterfinals last Tuesday and then won a Thursday semifinal over visiting Kiski School, 3-2.

After the semifinal contest in Chestnut Hill last Thursday, SCH had an overall record of 15-5-1 and Haverford was 13-6. Although SCH had officially clinched the Inter-Ac championship and Haverford was in second place, each team still had one league game left to play on Saturday.

The second weekend of November always features an all-sports day of competition between Episcopal Academy and Haverford/Agnes Irwin. Like GA and Penn Charter, EA and Haverford have a football rivalry that extends back to the 19th century.

For several years now, the other two schools with boys’ teams in the league, SCH and Malvern, have been playing one another in soccer and football on the same weekend. Last Saturday, SCH won 1-0 at Malvern on senior Dane Harmaty’s 19th goal of the season, while visiting Haverford lost, 1-0, at Episcopal.

In Thursday’s PAIS semifinal at SCH, Haverford came out playing the same way they had against the Hillers in the regular season, attacking by sending forwards to chase after long balls hit from the defensive end. It was SCH that notched the lone goal of the first half, though. When an SCH shot off of a short corner was blocked, senior Vince Sciarrotta went right after the loose-ball rebound.

As Hillers’ head coach Brian Zalasky described it, “He turned and then shot a nice floating ball to the far post.”

SCH sophomore goalie Ben Rodgers (right) was able to thwart this attempt by Haverford to take the lead with a flying header, but the Fords would score the go-ahead goal a few minutes later. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

It looked as though the lone goal might be enough for a win as the game progressed into the final 20 minutes with the 1-0 tally unaltered. The Hillers just missed out on an insurance goal when sophomore Casey Baker blasted a ball just over the Fords’ cage.

Haverford tied the game with 15:57 remaining, with freshman Joe Pariano firing a volley from the center of the field a few yards above the 18-yard line. This capped off several minutes of sustained offensive pressure by the visitors.

After one brief SCH foray to the other end, the Fords attacked once more. When 10th grader Asher Laackman ran onto a bouncing ball that had rebounded to the left side of the box, he banged it in to put the 2-1 final on the board with 12:07 on the ticker.

The Hillers did not go down without a fight. With 10 minutes left, Haverford senior goalie Will Boyes made a challenging save on a strong shot from the right side by SCH senior Luke Feeney. A little later, the high-scoring Harmaty sent a free kick smashing into Haverford’s defensive wall of bodies, and there was no opportunity for a shot on the rebound.

Near the end, a long throw-in from the right by the Hillers produced a shot that strayed outside the far post. Finally, senior Scott Bandura had a shot from near the left endline blocked by Fords sophomore Andrew Johnson.

“Haverford has a lot of intensity, a lot of fire and they’re a physical team,” Zalasky said. “Put those things together and you can make things happen. Their keeper is very solid; he came up with some really good saves on Dane and on some other guys.”

The PAIS champs in 2017 and 2018, the Hillers had graduated two strong classes of soccer players in a row, but still came back to win the league and reach the Indy Schools semifinals in 2019.

Zalasky commented, “It’s a testament to guys who’ve been in the program for a long time but didn’t get an opportunity to shine. We had a number of players who lost a lot of their junior season with injuries last year, and this year, as seniors, they stepped up and took ownership of their leadership positions. It was a team effort; we had one player who scored almost 20 goals, but we also had 11 other guys who scored at least one.”