ROYERSFORD — The Boyertown girls soccer team's identity has been based around defense for quite some time.
It's an identity that has carried the Bears to back-to-back Pioneer Athletic Conference championships and a place among the top programs in District 1.
Taking risks wouldn't be the first thing that comes to mind when talking about the Bears, but senior Marie Valenti saw things differently for a moment Tuesday night.
"We had the pressure up and Lily Fanok put a great shot on net. Something told me to follow it in,' Valenti said. "Sometimes you have to take a risk. So I took it and it worked out for us.'
Advanced from her right back position, Valenti found herself inside the 6-yard box to put the finishing touch on Fanok's shot in the 11th minute and provide the game's lone goal in a 1-0 victory over Phoenixville in a PAC-10 semifinal at Spring-Ford's Coach McNelly Stadium.
The Bears advanced to their sixth consecutive league championship game and are a win away from a PAC-10 championship three-peat. They face Liberty Division rival Spring-Ford (a 4-0 winner over Upper Perkiomen) in the final Thursday night — back at Spring-Ford at 7:30 p.m. following the boys final between Spring-Ford and Perkiomen Valley.
It wasn't nearly as easy a go of things compared to the regular season meeting between Boyertown and Phoenixville, which the Bears won 5-0.
For that reason alone, Phoenixville could take heart in an improved performance.
"We came out and gave everything we had,' said first-year Phoenixville head coach Tim Raub, a former Boyertown assistant coach. "They are the two-time defending PAC-10 champs and No. 2 in the state. They are a great team. I can't fault my girls. They can be disappointed with the loss, but I'm not at all disappointed with the effort.'
But Boyertown counted on its experienced lineup — one that features 10 seniors who have been around for the recent success — to carry it through.
"We've always tried to be very balanced, play well together, defend and score opportunistic goals. Survive and advance at this point of the season,' Boyertown coach Bill Goddard said. "It's been a good run with this group. It's a very senior-laden team. There's a lot of experience and they've been through the battles and understand what needs to be done.'
As a senior, Valenti wants to uphold — and pass along — the Bears' tradition.
"We've been there so we know what it takes,' she said. "We know that we have to step up but we also show the younger girls what it takes. We have younger girls with potential and they need to see what kind of effort a game like this takes.'
Boyertown had a one-goal advantage on Phoenixville within two minutes in the regular season. Through 10 minutes of the rematch it was obvious the Bears weren't clicking in the same way, but their best spell of the game produced the result they needed.
After Phoenixville goalkeeper Bri Cooley made an excellent diving stop on a breakaway to turn back a Megan Diehl shot, Boyertown immediately kept up the pressure, leading to Fanok making her way toward the right end line. Fanok, a senior midfielder, got off a shot back toward the face of goal which tipped to Valenti — who easily knocked it in for the 1-0 lead.
Along with Valenti, Boyertown got excellent performances from defensive midfielder Maria Garofolo and senior forward Emily Diehl, who posed a major attacking threat and was important in her hold-up play to allow the Bears to transition to attack. Garofolo's duels with Phoenixville standout Cecilia Knaub in the midfield were a highlight of the game.
Phoenixville found better footing late in the first half and into the second half, but the Boyertown defense — Valenti, Emily Saxon, Courtney Goddard, Ashley Becker and goalkeeper Sarafina Valenti — had the look of a team that wasn't going to allow a goal.
"Playoff games and one-goal games; they're really about defending, goalkeeping and restarts,' Goddard said. "I wasn't really thrilled with the first half. I didn't think we really got into a rhythm but in the second half we really started to get it going. We had our share of chances and they really didn't have any to speak of. We just locked it down and stuck to our strengths.'
The Bears had their share of good opportunity to increase the lead in the second half with a number of long through balls, springing Emily Diehl behind the defense. But time and time again — including a failed offside trap that saw Garofolo get off a shot from point-blank range — the Phantoms' Cooley (five saves) was up to the challenge.
"Bri Cooley stood on her head like she's done so many times this season. All year long she's been outstanding,' Raub said.
Despite the loss, Raub believes there are positives to be taken for Phoenixville as its postseason continues.
"They (the Bears) are senior-laden and we start only three seniors. Three freshmen played, two sophomores — if that's what I've got coming back in years to come we'll be OK,' he said. "It never feels good to lose but to know that we were able to battle and run with them ... this is going to give us confidence going into districts. We'll be a better team because of it.'
Boyertown's battle-tested senior class, meanwhile, is looking forward to putting its personal touch on the remainder of the season.
"They have a very good work ethic and they want to put their own stamp as a senior class on our program,' Goddard said. "Their expectations are pretty high. They are very focused and — knowing them, when they put their minds to it — they achieve what they want to achieve.'