Penn Charter’s Janae Stewart (center) brings the ball through the midfield. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

In the world of high school athletics, there is at least some normal activity during the Coronavirus crisis. The top girls’ soccer players at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy and Penn Charter, both juniors and high scorers for their teams, have made verbal college commitments.

JoJo McShane, who led the SCH Blue Devils to a 12-0 championship season in the Inter-Ac League in 2019, has thrown in her lot with the Spiders of the University of Richmond.

Unable to repeat last fall after winning the Inter-Ac in 2018, Penn Charter and goal factory Janae Stewart stepped up in the postseason and won the championship of the Pa. Independent Schools Athletic Association. Stewart has decided she likes a “Quaker” mascot; she’ll progress from PC to the University of Pennsylvania.

Speaking about McShane, SCH head coach Maria Kosmin commented on the characteristics that attracted college recruiters.

“Aside from her skills, which are definitely there, she has a certain passion for the game,” the Blue Devils’ mentor said. “When she has a goal and sets her mind to something, she’s all in. What kind of sets her apart is that she’s always pushing other people around her; they see her work ethic and commitment and they feed off of that. When you see her play, it’s hard to miss that character that she has.”

The last showcase McShane played in before making her college decision was an ECNL (Elite Clubs National League) tournament down in Florida in January. She considered holding off to explore more of her options, but Richmond recruited her fervently.

In addition to that, she said, “Everything there fit what I was looking for in a school and in a soccer program. At camps, I got to play with some girls who will be going there next fall, and also with some other girls they’re recruiting in my class. They seem to be in an upward trend.

“I liked the coaches and also their style of play,” she elaborated. “It’s a possession style, but they release the ball to the forwards quickly.”

Richmond is a member of the Colonial Athletic Association, to which Philadelphia’s Drexel University also belongs. The Spiders’ soccer program has been improving under head coach Marty Beall, who’ll be heading into his third season. He came to Richmond from High Point (N.C.) University, along with his primary assistant.

Of course, Stewart’s pick, Penn, belongs to the Ivy League. After tying for the Ivy title in 2018, the Quakers finished in the middle of the pack last fall. Things should perk up under new head coach Casey Brown, who was just hired in March. The Massachusetts native is coming off a four-year tenure as head coach at Holy Cross College, where she was named the 2019 Patriot League Coach of the Year.

Stewart had looked at some other Ivy League schools, as well as Georgetown University and several other colleges.

She noted, “Penn’s close to home, I like the city setting, and I like the soccer there.”

The PC standout enjoys math and science in the classroom, but hasn’t focused on a collegiate course of study at this point.

“That’s one of the reasons Penn made sense,” she said. “They have such a variety of options to explore, and a lot of different majors.”

On the soccer pitch, Charter head coach Darci Spencer remarked, “Janae is a danger at forward on the ground or in the air; she has the tools to succeed at the college level.

“She has many dimensions to her game,” Spencer went on. “She makes good runs in behind defenses, she takes players one-on-one, and she’s an excellent finisher. She’s a leader by example, and she’s also very positive verbally. She raises the level of the players around her with the high energy she brings to the team.”

JoJo McShane rallies the SCH Blue Devils. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Both Stewart and McShane were freshmen when they first enrolled at Penn Charter and Springside Chestnut Hill, respectively.

McShane spent most of her club career under the guidance of coach Mario Bono with the Fairmount Soccer Association and the United Philly travel team. After helping SCH win the Independent Schools championship as a freshman, she made the transition in club ball to FC Bucks as a sophomore.

In her junior season she became an SCH tri-captain along with two seniors, and helped the Blue Devils make a 12-0 run through the Inter-Ac, a relatively rare feat in the highly-competitive league.

She was always a threat inside the 18-yard line, and Coach Kosmin noted, “She worked on her ability to shoot off the dribble and shoot from outside the box. She’s constantly pushing herself. She knows how to use her speed an athleticism to break down defenders. She reads the game well. If other teams are focused on stopping her, she knows how to use her teammates and be a playmaker.”

PC’s Stewart played youth soccer with FCUSA Philadelphia and later joined the high-caliber FC Delco program.

“I’ve always been fast, so that was an advantage at the beginning,” she related. “As I played at a higher level, there were girls as fast as me and as strong as me. I worked on my technical skills and also on my mental skills, anticipation and knowing how to use space.”

Stewart’s Penn Charter coach, Spencer, related, “She’s a very hard worker and she’s grown immensely over the last three years. She has evolved technically and tactically; she’s gotten better in the air, her first touch has improved, and so has her decision making.”

Stewart said that her coach “pushed me to do things I wouldn’t normally have done, taught me that I could be better than I thought. I think that’s helped me develop into a better player, and a better person, too.”

Stewart helped the Quakers capture the Inter-Ac title in 2018, but had never played in a Pa. Independent Schools championship. She checked that box with Charter’s successful performance in the 2019 title bout.

Outside of school, she was selected for a US Youth Soccer ODP team that had been scheduled to play in Paris this April before the Coronavirus shutdowns.

McShane, too, has had to just chill out at home.

“I’m doing lots of soccer stuff in my backyard, and going for runs,” she said.

The SCH star is thinking about a career in the legal profession, and it so happens that a player she knew from FC Bucks, Gianna Lucchesi, is taking pre-law courses at Richmond. Lucchesi, who has done very well in her first two seasons with the Spiders, encouraged McShane in her pursuits, and the Springsider sat in on classes during her visit to the Virginia school.

Both McShane and Stewart are relieved that the long recruiting process has come to an end and that they have their college plans in place. Now they’re just going to weather the Coronavirus situation and look forward to what they hope is a relatively normal senior season