BUCKTOWN — For the first time since 2011, Emma Christman, Liz Karcewski and the rest of the Owen J. Roberts squad can say they made it to states.
In a win-or-go-home situation on Friday afternoon in the third round of the District 1-AAA playoffs, the Wildcats played their most complete game since the middle of their PAC-10 slate, ousting No. 5 Conestoga 4-2, advancing to the district semifinals — and more importantly, earning a PIAA berth.
"We finally came to life like what we did during the middle of the season," Owen J. Roberts head coach Clarence Jennelle said. "Our circle play during that run of three goals was just phenomenal.'"Owen J. (Roberts) gave us a great game,' Conestoga head coach Meg Ryan said. "Both teams played their hearts out."
Trying to pull together after what Jennelle called a "sloppy' victory over Mount St. Joseph in their win on Tuesday, the Wildcats wasted no time in affirming that they were ready to play.
Five minutes into the game, Karcewski struck first as she became the beneficiary of a Maddie Mullen strike that careened off Pioneer goalkeeper Chloe Johnson. Karcewski gathered the rebound and fired it into the cage to give the Wildcats the early 1-0 lead.
Trying to stymie Conestoga's primary threat, Olivier Everts, the Wildcats succumbed to the Pioneers speed on the corners as Conestoga's Nicole Bodo was able to induce a penalty corner a minute later. Bodo and the Pioneers converted as Meghan Connors took a rebound from a blast by Maggie Friel, wrapped around OJR goalkeeper Liz Tamburro and sent home the equalizer to the left-corner of the cage.
"We have a lot of speed on our team,' Ryan said. "We knew that coming in that Owen J. Roberts has strong goalies. We needed to move around them; straight shots weren't going to work.'
"We prepared to use each other, use our passing options,' Ryan added. "I think we did that, we saw each other."
The strategy proved to be effective yet again as the Pioneers chipped in another seven minutes later off another penalty corner as Bodo got in on the scoring action. Coming off an insert, Everts targeted a shot from the back-right corner of the cage. Tamburro made the nifty pad save but Bodo was there to collect the rebound, giving Conestoga a 2-1 edge.
Despite the 2-1 deficit and seeing a variety of calls go in the direction of the Pioneers, the Wildcats kept the heat on in the offensive zone, forcing six penalty corners during the half. However, similar to the 2-0 victory over Mount Saint Joseph's, the team couldn't capitalize on their chances.
"(At the half) I told them to stop worrying about the umpiring. We knew that when it came to the second half we were going to get the same umpiring and it was going to be more against them than it would us,' Jennelle said. "Stay calm, stay composed and keep working hard. We were beating them to the balls but we weren't getting any calls once we got down there."
The Wildcats heeded Jennelle's words as they got back to true form in the second half.
Strikingly similar to a team that rattled off an 11-1-1 record in conference play, the Wildcats turned a 2-1 deficit to a 2-2 tie a minute into the half. After a Karcewski attempt was deflected wide, Mullen took the ball off the restart and sent one home past Johnson. Three minutes later, the Wildcats were awarded a penalty stroke after a scrum in the circle. Christman was up to task with the shot, sending it to the right as Johnson dove left, giving the team the two-goal swing it craved.
"We wanted to go back to our game, the last game was a little sloppy," Christman said. "I think we really proved ourselves this game."
Seven minutes later it was Karcewski getting in on the scoring action as she sneaked through three defenders to stuff one home from the right post, giving OJR the 4-2 edge.
"During practice, I practiced stepping through and cutting off the defender," Karcewski said. "Liz's goal, Liz didn't even see the ball," Jennelle said. "She just felt something and got the shot off."
The defense, including stellar play from Lauren Schweppe, Ashley Kucera and Nettie Montes, stood tall during the frame, forcing the Pioneers to the outside and not allowing Everts to have any space to maneuver in the middle. The strategy paid dividends as the Pioneers were only able to put pressure on toward the end of the half.
"We knew Oliver was going to be playing in the middle," Christman said. "We knew he was one of their best players so our game plan was to keep it out of the middle and keep it to the sides."
"Schweppe and Kucera did a nice job of tag-teaming front and back, not letting Oliver dribble," Jennelle said. "Between Kucera, Schweppe and (Nettie) Montes, they did a great job forcing him so that he couldn't go inside to get anything."
The Pioneers applied pressure late as Meredith Ross sent home a goal that would have cut the lead to 4-3 with a little over a minute to play; however, the goal was disallowed because the goal deflected off Ross' stomach and not her stick.
Conestoga, an overtime victor over Methacton on Tuesday, will wait and see whether they advance to the PIAA tournament as six teams from District 1 move on. With a No. 5 seed in their pockets, the Pioneers focus has shifted to gearing up for a potential PIAA slate.
"We will regroup; we'll come back together as one," Ryan said. "This team works together extremely well. We'll learn from each game this week. We've had a lot of great competition and a lot of success and we will focus on that leading into next week."
For OJR, all sights are set for next Wednesday, as the team will face West Chester Henderson, a 2-1 winner over Central Bucks West Friday, in the District 1-AA semifinals.
With a berth in states already in hand, Jennelle preached playing for one moment and trying to ignore the sheer magnitude of the state berth.
"Worry about each game as it comes,' the longtime OJR coach said. "Play the best that you can all the time and the rest will take care of itself.'