RADNOR — As the Radnor boys soccer team huddled together on the field at Strath Haven's George L. King Field the night of Oct. 3, the future looked uncertain.
They'd just seen their leading scorer, forward Jack Norton, carted off the field after a horrific second-half collision with Panthers defender Will Hotham. Hotham came away with a serious concussion; Norton suffered a skull fracture that landed him an extended hospital stay. So terrifying was the scene that night that both teams decided it best not to continue a pivotal game in the Central League standings.
Whether the Raiders knew it or not, that game represented a turning point in the season. The following day, they decided as a group which way Norton's injury would turn the season.
"Personally, I'm not the closest friends with Jack, we were just starting to become friends this year, but I was bawling,' midfielder James Cellucci recalled Monday. "I was crying my eyes out. It was one of the saddest moments of my life, and as a team, we decided we couldn't finish the game. The next day, we came back and said, Jack will be fine — that's what we heard — and we just started focusing again and we kept going, and we're dedicating the rest of the season to Jack.'
The aftermath of the injury has galvanized the Raiders, who have rattled off six straight wins, four after the Norton injury, including a 2-1 win in the continuation of that Strath Haven game Oct. 17. It means the No. 23 seed Raiders bring a head of steam into Tuesday's trip to No. 10 Central Bucks West (3 p.m.) in the opening round of the District One Class AAA Tournament.
It's the second straight season the Raiders (11-4-3, 8-3-0 Central League) have been in a similar predicament. Last season, a knee injury felled leading scorer and All-Delco Chris Martin. Norton, albeit with only four goals to Martin's 13, continues to be the Raiders' leading goalscorer, tied with Cellucci.
But head coach Joe Caruolo says the two incidents are hardly comparable. What Martin brought on the field was undeniable, a "game-changing' ability in rare supply.
Norton, on the other hand, led by example, with intensity and dedication. Those are the commodities, more than goals or assists, for which his teammates have had to compensate. They've done so with flying colors.
"It certainly takes its toll tactically, but also psychologically and emotionally,' Caruolo said. "Tactically, just to have another strong forward who can hold the ball and go at you one-on-one, it challenges the team to find other ways to score. But also the emotional and psychological part to where Jack would lead through his intensity and competitiveness. And to not have that there, that void, the kids responded to it by saying, ' we need to carry that void ourselves.''
"When you lose someone like Jack who can finish basically from anywhere, people have to start stepping up, whether it's as an individual or as a whole — like Cellucci stepping up to tie Jack as the leading scorer,' midfielder Gerardo Montiel said. "It's been hard, but I like the competition. I like how we've responded to it as a team.'
Radnor has won its last two games in overtime, Cellucci scoring the first goal in each with Sasha Abadi and Max Barish getting the game-winners. In all, 12 players have found the net for Radnor, one of the most egalitarian offensive arrangements in the county.
"I just knew that someone had to step up,' Cellucci said. "I didn't know who it would be. I didn't even think it would be me. As an outside mid, they're not usually the ones who score where (Jack is) a forward, but then I just kind of took his spot a little bit. We knew someone had to step up, and it just happened to be me.'
In some ways, stripped of the emotional impact that team members have collectively helped each other cope with, the Norton injury is a continuation of the central theme for Radnor this season. Only five players returned from last season's districts team with varsity experience, and limited at that. Players have had to step up out of the blue this season, Norton being one of the first to do so. His injury is another opportunity for someone to rise to the occasion, and that's exactly what has happened.
"We've definitely improved a lot over the few months,' Montiel said. "We've definitely become closer, and the whole season goes out to Jack, and I think that's made us stronger. I think we have a good momentum going now, we've been winning a lot of games. I think everyone's going to go all out.'
In other boys games:
No. 24 Sun Valley at No. 9 Bensalem, 7
The Owls have taken care of business with a 14-4-0 record this season, surging to second place in the Suburban One National division. Their losses are to District One tournament teams — No. 3 seed Neshaminy twice, and No. 17 Pennsbury — and District 12 powerhouse La Salle. Stopping Juan Turo will be a big task for the Vanguards, but this is a Sun Valley team that has won four of five.
No. 26 Ridley at No. 7 North Penn, 7
The Green Raiders know they're in for a tough game against the No. 7 Knights (13-2-2, 10-2-2 SOL Continental). The Knights have succeeded this year with a suffocating, possession-based attack benefiting the prolific finishing of Dylan McMahon. Expect a physical, close-to-the-vest game where Ridley will have to capitalize on set-piece opportunities.
No. 28 Interboro at No. 5 W.C. Henderson, 7
The champs of the Ches-Mont National division with an 11-1-1 record, the Warriors are senior-laden, including one of the best goalkeepers around in Todd Morton. For Interboro to be successful, it will have to absorb plenty of pressure and be clinical in the few opportunities to go forward.
No. 19 Strath Haven at No. 14 W.C. Rustin, 5
It was a long time ago that the Panthers dropped a 2-0 decision to Rustin on the first day of the season. Since, the Panthers have established themselves as the second-best team in the Central League. They face a trip to Rustin, the No. 1 overall seed in this tournament last year. This season, their 9-4-0 league record was second in the Ches-Mont American behind No. 1 overall seed Great Valley.
No. 17 W.C. East at No. 16 Haverford, 7
The Fords are a streaky team: They lost their opener, ripped off 11 straight wins, dropped three straight and finished the season with a two-win flourish. The Fords won their only game against Ches-Mont opposition this season, downing a Henderson team that finished a game behind East in the standings.
No. 21 Garnet Valley at No. 12 Pennsbury, 7
These two teams share Strath Haven as a common opponent. Garnet Valley lost to the Panthers 1-0 Sept. 10, long before hitting its stride to amass the eight-game winning streak it's currently on, while the Falcons dropped a 3-0 decision five days ago. Couple that with Garnet Valley's playoff experience, and an upset isn't out of the question.
No. 27 Interboro vs. No. 6 C.B. East, at C.B. West, 7
Capping off the season with a playoff berth is a big accomplishment for the Bucs. But they face a stiff test at Central Bucks East, runner-up in the very strong Suburban One Continental. The Bucs carry a three-game slide into the game.