Archbishop Wood defeats Nazareth Academy 2-0 to win the 2023 PCL Championship - PSD Photo by Donna Eckert
Photos/Videos: Donna Eckert, John Knebels & Marc Narducci
By: Marc Narducci
PHILADELPHIA – It is the most simplistic of theories, yet so vital to any team’s success – a team can’t score if they don’t have the ball.
This elemental fact is what helped propel Archbishop Wood to a third consecutive Philadelphia Catholic League girls’ soccer title.
There are many reasons why the Vikings were able to three-peat, but the most important, as basic as it sounds, is that they held possession of the ball, over, and over and over again.
That advantage led the Vikings to a 2-0 win over gritty newcomer Nazareth Academy in the PCL championship game before a large crowd Saturday at Northeast High School.
It all started up top, but really the reason the Vikings were so impressive is that all three levels were truly in sync. Defenders to midfielders to forwards.
Sure, it began up top, with a trio of players who individually are difficult enough to defend and collectively, are a nightmare to attempt to stop.
Fittingly, there was one in a different class who led the possession battle, senior Ava DeGeorge, a maestro with the ball, who time and time again dazzled the crowd with her ability to play keep-away.
There was Regan Kelso, a junior transfer from Pennsbury, who scored both goals, but did so much more, including moving back to a defensive midfield position shortly after giving her team a two-goal lead.
And then there was sophomore, Paige Eckert, so efficient working the flanks, constantly beating a series of defenders and most importantly, holding the ball until the right play appeared before her eyes.
“To get to that final third where it is hardest to play and to be calm and still to look for that pass and still try things in a game like this, I give the kids a lot of credit,” said Tom DeGeorge, not only Ava’s father, but the coach of this Catholic League juggernaut.
The reason it is so difficult to defend this trio is that they are not only magicians with the ball, but they can strike it hard, with either foot.
So a defender can’t play them to go one way, because they will cut it, and head in a different direction before blasting the ball with just as much authority with their so-called opposite foot.
It’s fair to ask that with such possession dominance, why was the score just 2-0?
Good question with an easy answer.
One only has to look at the Nazareth Academy junior keeper Gracie Sullivan, who made several big saves that kept her team within distance.
Ultimately, the fact that Archbishop Wood held the ball so long, wore down the Pandas, who truly excelled in their first season of Catholic League competition.
For Archbishop Wood, it always starts with Ava DeGeorge, the Rider commit who is as mesmerizing with ball as any player in the area. We’ll include the boys in this conversation as well.
She has that hop in her step, one that shows she is ready to blow by a defender, but if she doesn’t see the opening, then it’s time to pull things back and look for a teammate. Only a person with the utmost composure can play this style.
“That was our goal the whole year, just keeping the ball,” Ava DeGeorge said. “That is all we do in practice, possession, possession, possession and to see it translate in a game like this, is so rewarding.”
Still, things weren’t easy and that’s not only because Sullivan was on her game, but her defense, led by junior center back Reese Power, is downright stingy. It’s a unit that even after getting beaten on a play, recovers quickly.
So even with the possession advantage, Archbishop Wood had nothing to show until Kelso made the type of play that she has been executing all season.
With exactly 19 minutes left in the first half, she sent one of her patented blasts on goal that even a keeper on her game had little chance of stopping.
That was her 14th goal of the season. No. 15 was a true back-breaker.
Her second goal came with 34:11 left in the second half, and it may be cruel to call it accidental, but it appeared as if she was making a cross that instead found its way into the back of the net.
Come on, was that a shot or a cross?
Cracking up, she answered, “It was a mixture of both, and I was hoping that it went in or someone else got on it.”
Well, it did go in, and the way the Vikings were possessing the ball, that was more than enough of a cushion.
The third member of the front line, Eckert, did her share of possessing the ball and making life miserable for the Nazareth Academy defense.
“I thought the key was we stayed calm with the ball,” Eckert said. "They were packed in defensively and it was hard to get in, but we kept getting our chances, kept shooting and we knew it was coming.”
Of course, for the trio to get the ball, they needed help on the other two levels.
Midfielders Sage Boost, Sophia Topakas and Kylie Wiest, constantly delivered to the attackers up top. This trio also did a great job of holding possession.
And the defense played in symmetry with the midfield and did the same. Instead of booting the ball out during any pressurized moments, the back four stayed calm, more often than not, making the right pass.
The defense has to be mentioned because it worked so well together in front of senior goalie Lauren Greer, who constantly made the right reads on plays and showed her great hands on several stops.
For all of its success, this is a relatively young Archbishop Wood team. Just look at the defense, with freshman Molly McConnell and sophomores Brigid Johnston and Macie Kennedy.
Oh wait, there was a veteran defender in that group, senior Grace Hoeger, who was not only a mentor to the younger players, but made so many big plays, including calculated runs that naturally resulted in long possessions for the Vikings.
“I think in the beginning it was hard to connect with the new girls but especially at the end of the season we have all connected so well and we know how to play well together,” Hoeger said. “All the young girls hold their ground so well and it’s a great defense.”
Looking at the other end, Nazareth Academy coach Dan Bradley, felt that his team took awhile to get adjusted to the championship setting.
“I thought the first 25 minutes we played like a nervous team,” Bradly said. “We just can’t give them those opportunities, but I think we got more composed in the second half.”
He said the first Kelso goal was a true gut punch.
Ava DeGeorge poses with her father and head coach Tom DeGeorge - PSD Photo by Donna Eckert
“They got that goal, but it took the wind out of ourselves, but I am proud of our girls, they played until the end,” Bradley said.
One thing during the game became readily apparent to Bradley, although he has known it since his first match of his first season in the PCL, a 3-2 loss to Archbishop Ryan, where the winners overcame a 2-0 deficit.
“Like I have said before, this league isn’t easy,” he said. “Today wasn’t our day, but hats off to Wood and congratulations to them.”
Yes, hats off to the three-time defending champions.
Their coach insisted they play a certain way, a possession style that emphasized keeping the ball, and now during crunch time they are doing so at the highest of levels.
It’s not an easy way to play, but when it happens, there is such a beauty to the game.
And when done right, teams often end up holding championship hardware, the one that Archbishop Wood once again possesses.