BY MARC NARDUCCI
(PHOTOS & VIDEO/ DONNA ECKERT)
GYWNEDD VALLEY, PA -- It’s the old guard against the upstart newcomer in what promises to be an intriguing Philadelphia Catholic League girls soccer championship.
Top seeded Archbishop Wood, the two-time defending champion, will meet No. 5 seed Nazareth Academy, the first-year Catholic League participant, in Saturday’s title game at the Northeast Philadelphia Supersite.
Both the PCL girls’ and boys’ championship games will be at this venue on Saturday. The finals will be at 4 and 6 p.m. with the girls' match taking place first and the boys' to follow.
Here is a look at how both teams advanced during Tuesday’s semifinal doubleheader at Gwynedd Mercy University.
Immediately after his team showed late game dramatics for the second straight playoff game, Nazareth Academy coach Dan Bradley looked back at his team’s first PCL game as a turning point. Nazareth jumped out to a 2-0 lead, although Bradley felt things weren’t going to be this easy and he was right.
Archbishop Ryan exploded for three goals enroute to a 3-2 win over Nazareth Academy. A gut punch in his team’s first ever PCL game.
“I thought when we played Ryan in our first PCL game, it was a wakeup call,” Bradley said. “We realized that this was going to be a dogfight, nothing was going to be easy.”
It might have been a jolting loss at the time, but…
“It was probably the best thing to happen to us, to learn from that,” Bradley said. “Being up two goals early and realizing nobody is going to lay down for us.” He paused and added, “I kept saying that was our best loss because it woke us up to see what this league is all about.”
It was truly a grind.
The Pandas went 5-3-1 in the PCL during the regular season. Five games were decided by one goal and the draw was a 0-0 game with Cardinal O’Hara.
Yet each of those close games made this a hardened group. By the time the postseason began, the Pandas surely drew on those close games to win two postseason nail biters.
First came a 1-0 quarterfinal double OT win at No. 4 seeded Cardinal O’Hara. Talk about dramatics, this wasn’t decided until Devon Cheeseman scored a goal with a measly three seconds left in the second overtime.
This is Nazareth Academy’s first season in the PCL. Remember back to Sept. 11, the Pandas made their PCL debut with a game at neighbor Archbishop Ryan?
Fast forward to the semifinal and it was none other than Cheeseman who opened the scoring. Dribbling down the left side, and blowing by two defenders, she deposited a shot from about 12 yards out at an angle, putting it past a charging keeper. The goal came with more than 35 minutes left in the second half.
Archbishop Ryan then tied the game when junior Riley Lukach scored in a scramble out front with 29:07 left in the second half.
Then the teams battled back and forth.
Special mention has to go to Archbishop Ryan striker Gianna “G” Rivera.
She is the type of player who continually captivates the crowd, with an array of moves, breaking down one defender after another.
Several times she bought herself room, with dazzling moves, only to either shoot wide, on goal, or have her shot blocked.
She was dynamic, showing again why she is among the top players not only in the PCL, but the entire region.
“She is a great player,” Bradley said of Rivera. “We had Annaliese Steiner shadow her.”
It was a total team effort to defend a player of Rivera’s skill.
“We tried to keep her in front of us as best we could,” Bradley said. “I thought for the most part, we held it in check, but you never know with a player like that. You can never take a second off with a player like that.”
Archbishop Ryan senior striker Gianna Rivera in semifinal match vs. Nazareth Academy. (Photo/ Donna Eckert for PSD)
For the second game in a row, Nazareth Academy earned a game-winning goal late in the game. Senior Alyssa Browning set up the play, by dribbling down the right flank and then sent a cross on goal.
Charging the far post, junior Natalie D’Alfonso tapped in the pass for the game-winner with 2:57 left.
“I saw Alyssa going to the corner, she crossed it, so I just made my run, it went over the defender’s head and I put it in,” D’Alfonso said.
Like her coach, D’Alfonso remembered the opening game of the season once she scored.
“It was great,” she said. ‘From when we lost 3-2 to them last time it felt great to come back and win.”
This was a workman-like performance for the two-time defending PCL champions. Early on, it was St. Hubert that almost made the first strike.
Less than three minutes into the game, freshman Kady Donnelly shot a rocket that hit off the left post.
“Something like that, especially with a young team, could have boosted our confidence,” St. Hubert coach Jeannette Hibbs said. “But at the end of the day it was a great opportunity and we had others too.”
Archbishop Wood settled down after that opening near-goal. Working with precision, the Vikings had a strong possession advantage.
In the sixth minute, Wood struck first when Ava DeGeorge sent in a corner that was batted away by standout freshman keeper Quin Miller. Wood sophomore Kylie Wiest was in front of the net and tapped in the rebound.
“It definitely made us feel better about the game and gave us more hyped and we played better,” Wiest said.
Wiest is a newcomer to the program. She is a transfer from Upper Moreland. Another newcomer, Regan Kelso made it 2-0 on a goal in the 16th minute. Kelso shot a blast from an angle on the left side. She is a transfer from Pennsbury.
St. Hubert was still in the game until Wood went up 3-0 on a penalty kick by Ava DeGeorge with 21:01 left in the game. Wiest caused the penalty kick when she was taken down inside the box. Shortly after, sophomore Paige Eckert scored the fourth Archbishop Wood goal.
Four different players and four goals. This kind of balance has made the Vikings so difficult to defend. Ava DeGeorge is the ringleader, constantly holding possession, beating defenders and looking for opportunities for either herself or her teammates. And there are plenty of others who can put the ball in the back of the net.
“Kylie is a handful, Paige, we just have so many weapons,” said Wood coach Tom DeGeorge. “If teams feel they have to cover Ava, we still have three or four who have the ability to beat you.”
This game was different from the regular season meeting between the two teams. On Oct. 5, Wood defeated St. Hubert, 3-2. Wood was a different team in the playoff game, drawing on the experience of winning consecutive PCL titles.
Wood Sophomore Paige Eckert seals the win with 4th and final game winning goal. (Photo/ Donna Eckert for PSD)
“The playoffs are tough, especially in the PCL,” Tom DeGeorge said. “We talked about it that it doesn’t matter what you did in the regular season, you are trying to get better, and you have to get the result in these playoff games.”
Wood went 8-1 in the regular season, losing 2-1 in overtime to Archbishop Ryan. Even though the Vikings were playing a No. 6 seed, they didn’t take St. Hubert for granted. This is a Wood team that is a combination of youth and experience.
“We’re going to our third straight final and some of our players have a lot of experience and others, it was their first playoff game,” said Tom DeGeorge, whose team had a first-round bye. “This was a good experience tonight and it was a good atmosphere.”
Now it’s onto the finals. During the regular season, Wood earned a 2-1 home win over Nazareth Academy on Sept. 18th.
Both teams have improved since then and that is why this has a chance to be a memorable championship game.