Photos/Videos: Donna Eckert, Ryan Emmerich (LC '23), Patty Morgan, Gabe Petrecz (ACHS '23) & David Picariello (FJHS '24)
By: John Knebels
PHILADELPHIA – The most commonly uttered phrase at this time of the year in Philadelphia Catholic League soccer consists of two words.
Starting Friday afternoon, the top eight teams of the PCL will commence the long-awaited postseason. Unlike the recent past, no teams have been granted a bye. After the quarterfinals – which take place at the fields of the higher seeds – the four semifinalists will meet at Ramp Playground on October 26. The championship will take place on October 29 at the Northeast Supersite.
No PCL sport offers more parity than boys’ soccer. During the regular season, eight games necessitated double overtime, and one required one overtime period.
A slip here or a slip there, a post here or a post there, an offside here or an offside there, an injury here or an injury there, and the PCL standings could look entirely different.
Top-seed Father Judge (10-1) has won its last seven league games and allowed only seven goals in the PCL. Recent highlights include a 2-1 win over Roman Catholic on goals by junior Abu Cherif and junior Dane Pizzaro, and in a 4-0 victory over St. Joseph’s Prep, sophomore Gavin Dunlop scored his first varsity goal.
“It was very exciting, and it wasn’t the way I imagined,” said Dunlop, who scored late in the first half to increase Judge’s lead to 2-0. “But the ball hit the back of the net and I was glad to put another one on the board for the team.”
Dunlop had been playing more of a defensive midfield until just a few games ago and has enjoyed his role as playmaker.
“I’ve been moving up the field to more of an attacking mid, which put me in position to get my first goal,” said Dunlop. “Putting the ball in dangerous spots for my teammates to get the job done is what I do best to contribute to the team, but it feels great to finally be on the other side and put one away.”
Father Judge senior Mike McCusker labeled the win over Roman Catholic as the Crusaders’ marquee win so far.
“For all the guys on our team to come out there and work hard means a lot,” said McCusker. “Because of the amount of close games we have been in over the last two years, our team stays calm when the game, and our season, is on the line. If you can keep your composure and cool during the game, a lot can change quickly in your favor.”
The Crusaders, who lost to La Salle in last year’s final, will host St. Joseph’s Prep 4:00 PM at Ramp. The Hawks finished 5-6 and have lost five of their last seven, but finished with a 1-0 win at Conwell-Egan.
Father Judge senior Mike McCusker #12 - PSD Photo by David Picariello @DavesCaptures
Father Judge coach John Dunlop will remind his players that, despite being the regular-season champs, now comes the pressure of one-and-done.
“One season over and new one starts up,” said Dunlop. “Playoffs is what makes this league unique. The top teams get a second chance to prove themselves.”
Since dropping its league opener, two-seed Archbishop Wood’s only blemish was a scoreless tie against Archbishop Ryan. In one of the Vikings’ three overtime contests, the Vikings (9-1-1) edged Roman Catholic, 1-0, on a goal by senior Chris Branchide early in the second OT.
After a free kick by senior Giuseppe Propato, junior Logan Savage flicked a pass to Branchide, who headed in the game winner.
“There was no design for that play,” said Branchide. “I had been marked tightly on all the free kicks throughout the game and realized it would be much easier to play off my teammates. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.”
Branchide had also scored an overtime game winner against Hatboro-Horsham.
“When you’re in that moment, you just get a rush of adrenaline and excitement,” said Branchide. “There is no other feeling like it. This was one of the most important games of the season for us. This helped us move past both La Salle and Roman into second seed and is important for district play as well.”
Other standout Vikings included freshman Gavin Zacwieja, the back line of junior Albert Funk, senior Cole Costello, junior Nick Striano, and the aforementioned Propato.
Junior goalie Julian Naumenko finished the PCL with nine shutouts in his last 10 games, helping the Vikings to surrender a league-low three goals overall.
“That was definitely one of the most nail-biting games I have ever experienced as a player,” said Naumenko. “It was a well-fought game by Roman. Going back and forth the whole game was hard on both teams. It was a very important win for us, and I can’t wait to see what comes at us in playoffs.”
Naumenko sprinted the length of the field to join his mates after Branchide’s heroics.
“It’s a feeling like no other,” he said. “Not only is it a sense of relief, but seeing the team celebrating and being a part of it is truly my favorite part about playing soccer.”
Wood will host Conwell-Egan 3:15 PM at Community Park in Warminster. The Eagles might be the most misleading seven-seed in recent memory. Their 5-5-1 record includes three double overtime games, two of which ended in losses and the other in a tie.
In their penultimate regular-season finale, Conwell-Egan stunned host La Salle, 2-1, for what might have been the first time in school history.
“This win means a lot to us as a team,” said C-E senior Dillon Farrell. “We know we could compete with every team and we finally proved it. This was a message to the league that we are ready for anyone. When we play like this, it’s gonna be hard to beat us.”
Conwell-Egan coach Mike Rigney recognizes that his team has a high mountain to overcome in the first round.
“The team is looking forward to our match this week against Wood,” said Rigney. “Our coaching staff is very happy with the positive steps we’ve made as a soccer program this season. We were competing in every game and the boys believe they can compete in the postseason.
“Wood is a very good team. We played a tough game against them during our regular season match. We are looking forward to the challenge this Friday.”
Unaccustomed to being a three-seed, two-time defending champion La Salle (8-2-1) struggled a bit down the stretch with an uncharacteristic 3-2-1 record, including a 2-1 loss to visiting Conwell-Egan.
However, defending champions remain the “team to beat” until they are dethroned.
“Looking at the playoffs, I think it's very obvious that the league is wide open this year,” said La Salle coach Tom McCaffery. “The way that each team has played each other in the top eight this season has been really, really quality, and we're looking forward to a very exciting playoff run.
“Hopefully, if we can get some things situated offensively and take care of our chances, we will be right in the mix with some of the other really good teams in the league this year to try and make a postseason run. It will be a very difficult task, but I'm hoping that our guys are up for the challenge.”
At 3:15 PM, six-seed Lansdale Catholic will visit La Salle and try to stop the champs. A close look at the recent history of these two foes unearths some fascinating tidbits.
In the years 2016, 2017, 2019, and 2021, La Salle captured league titles while blitzing the rest of the league with a frightening 39-0-2 record. The Explorers’ other four games? Two losses and two ties versus Lansdale Catholic.
The Crusaders finished with a 3-1 loss at Archbishop Ryan.
“Despite the less-than-ideal showing against Ryan last Friday night, there’s something different about this team lately,” said Lansdale Catholic coach Casey Farrell. “It’s feeling like we’re finally starting to find a rhythm offensively and starting to trust each other to make the tough plays when the chips are down.”
Farrell particularly lauded senior Kam Schmidt, who has scored five goals and assisted on two in his past six games, and junior Gianluca D’Alterio.
“More of an attacking midfielder his whole life, Kam was tasked with stabilizing our defense early in the season because we needed a veteran presence on our back line,” said Farrell. “But during our thriller against Roman (a 4-3 loss on October 4), we moved him up into the midfield to provide a spark and he provided exactly that – assisting twice and scoring the third. His offense has been a great shot of life for the team.
“Kam and Gianluca have been steering the offensive ship these past few weeks. We’re just hoping we can carry this positive momentum into the postseason.”
Four-seed Roman Catholic won its first six games and finished 2-2-1 down the stretch. The Cahillites recorded a 1-1-1 mark in double overtimes. Five of their final seven games ended in a tie or were decided by one goal, during which the Cahillites went 2-2-1.
Over their last five, the Cahillites tied La Salle, 0-0, defeated Lansdale Catholic, 4-3, lost at Father Judge, 2-1, lost to Archbishop Wood, 1-0, in double overtime, and defeated Devon Prep, 4-0.
“Looking at it in terms of wins and losses, it’s two in the wrong column,” said Roman Catholic coach Ray DeStephanis. “But this is the Catholic League after all, and you have to be ready to play smart and hard no matter who you’re playing. Every game has its own story and each opponent writes its own chapter to the story.
“We played a decent first half versus Judge and certainly identified things we didn’t like in the second half. Still we were in a position to knot it a couple times down the stretch. Lansdale Catholic was a weatherly mess, but again, the story there was resilience. LC didn’t go away, but neither did we, and that became a tough, battle-tested win.
“As for Wood, I was very happy with our effort. A little deflating, yes, because we had the opportunities to put that match away. Instead, it could’ve gone either way at anytime. But that’s soccer now, isn’t it?”
Next up at 7:15 PM at Lighthouse Field is five-seed Archbishop Ryan.
The Raiders’ record of 6-3-2 includes a 4-1-1 finish and a 0-2-2 record in double-overtime games. Each of their three defeats were by identical scores of 2-1; the first two in double overtime at Father Judge and at Roman Catholic, and the other against visiting La Salle – Ryan’s only loss in regulation. Two days later, the Raiders fought for a double-overtime tie at Archbishop Wood.
“We’re excited for the opportunity to play such a great team,” said Ryan coach Ryan Haney. “The PCL has proven again and again that on any day, the eight remaining teams can beat each other.
“I love this league and everything it stands for. Should be a great day of soccer.”
Among the four teams that did not qualify for the playoffs was Devon Prep.
The Tide finished strong with two wins in their final three games, defeating host Bonner-Prendergast, 3-0, and visiting Archbishop Carroll, 2-1, before a 4-0 defeat at Roman Catholic.
In the win over Carroll, senior Pierce McVeigh chose the perfect time to score multiple goals for the first time this season since it was Senior Day.
“We’ve been putting in a lot of work this season, but it hasn’t turned out the way we would have liked,” said McVeigh. “Getting this important win means a lot for the team.”
Devon Prep junior Nick Walton was thrilled for the upperclassmen.
“We really wanted to win it for them,” said Walton. “Although the season hasn’t gone our way, it was nice to send the seniors off with a hard fought victory.”
(Contact John Knebels at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @johnknebels.)
Tag(s): Home Schools Philadelphia Catholic Soccer Boys Soccer Philadelphia Catholic League Arch. Carroll Boys Soccer Arch. Ryan Boys Soccer Arch. Wood Boys Soccer Bishop McDevitt Boys Soccer Bonner & Prendie Boys Soccer Cardinal O'Hara Boys Soccer Conwell-Egan Boys Soccer Father Judge Soccer La Salle Soccer Lansdale Cath. Boys Soccer Neumann/Goretti Boys Socce Roman Catholic Soccer Saint Joseph's Prep Soccer Devon Prep