NETHER PROVIDENCE — The quest all season for the Spring-Ford girls soccer team has been to blaze new trails for the program, to change the way the team is perceived.
On the biggest stage they've yet had, the Rams resoundingly announced their membership to the elite programs Thursday, at the expense of the reigning district champions no less.
Sammy Stipa, Gabrielle Vagnozzi and Aley Kate McKinley each scored a goal and an assist as the No. 8 seed Rams downed No. 3 seed Strath Haven, 4-1, to book District 1's fifth and final spot to the PIAA Class AAA tournament.
It was the latest installment in a season of firsts for the Rams (21-2-1), which included their first ever Pioneer Athletic Conference title.
"It means a lot,' said Stipa, who headed home the second goal off a Vagnozzi cross then played the through ball that McKinley finished to set the final margin. "We're trying to prove ourselves and make a name for what Spring-Ford girls soccer really is. We want to prove ourselves in states, so this is an awesome accomplishment for us.'
The architect of this turnaround is a familiar face in Delco soccer circles: Sheldon Chamberlain, who piloted Villanova for five seasons in the mid-1990s.
After a retirement to Florida that ended with Chamberlain getting back into coaching in the Sunshine State, he decided to relocate back north three years ago. His formula, one which he credits assistants Liz Caggiano and Tim Leyland with a big hand in, and a collegiate approach has paid dividends.
"We just decided, let's get the seventh and eighth graders involved,' Chamberlain said. "Let's not cut anyone, let's let them play and see what they're all about. ... The whole program has grown up. The girls have skills. They have good club teams. They are the whole package.'
For Strath Haven, which won the District 1 tournament a season ago, it was the most lopsided loss in a while. Despite the better of play early, it was a fluky goal that put them down, a slide tackle by Haven goalkeeper Katie Fisher pinballing off Vagnozzi and into a yawning cage in the 16th minute.
It wasn't just the first goal the Panthers (16-3-2) had given up in the tournament (they were relegated to playbacks via a penalty-kick loss to Central Bucks East in the quarterfinals after a scoreless draw). It's the first goal they gave up in October, the last time their defense was breached being a Sept. 30 draw with Conestoga, 10 shutouts ago.
Despite that, the Panthers continued to fight and got a goal back before the stroke of halftime thanks to Jamie Kenney, one of eight seniors playing their final game Thursday.
"We still stayed positive and we kept up our energy and our pressure,' said Kenney, who deftly finished a pass laid off by Kristen Miller in the 33rd minute. "Obviously we scored the goal and we got the momentum up, and we just kept our play — our play — and didn't sink down to their aggressive levels. We just tried to keep up what we had.'
It took too long, though, for Strath Haven to cope with the physicality brought by the Rams, specifically Stipa, in the midfield.
It was just after head coach Gino Miraglia shuffled his team, bringing Bri Irons from defense to midfield and putting Katherine Burk in the back, that Spring-Ford struck. When Miraglia changed things again, shifting Central League MVP and All-Delco Miller into the midfield, it was the Panthers who got a breakthrough seven minutes before halftime and appeared to be riding a wave of momentum into halftime.
"It was definitely physical both ways, and we knew that in the center of midfield it was crowded,' Stipa said. "We knew our center mids needed to stay together and work together and we'd be fine.'
"It was hard having to keep up with them on the outside and staying with our marks was very difficult,' Strath Haven defender Kira Venturini said. "We knew that they were a team that scores early, so we were not expecting it, but we were ready for it. I think we just did a great job of pushing through it no matter the calls or how many goals they had.'
Where the game definitively turned, however, was on a questionable decision by the refs. McKinley's through ball sprung Megan Giannopoulos in the 48th minute, who latched onto it, rounded Fisher and buried goal No. 3. Giannopoulos started her run from an onside position, but she overlapped Vagnozzi, who was offside, causing the Panthers defense to momentarily take its foot off the gas.
The passive offside rule was, in the eyes of the home crowd, incorrectly applied, and it took some of the steam out of the Strath Haven comeback attempt.
"I think that we had to take the refs out of the equation,' Kenney said. "We have to play, we have to be able to account for that. Even though we were down two goals, we just kept going. The game wasn't over; we had 30 minutes left. Having that ref call that, or not call that, was kind of upsetting. He should have, and it changed the outcome of the game.'
The speed of the forwards and distribution from midfield allowed the Rams to cherry-pick runs as Strath Haven pushed for goals. That's how McKinley finished the scoring. Stipa, who was also a key contributor to the Rams' PIAA championship basketball team last winter, played a ball into the path of McKinley, who left Fisher no chance with her well-placed shot.
From there, the celebration, albeit a restrained one, was on. That didn't minimize the significance of this triumph, though.
"They've never been there,' Chamberlain said. "They had never won the PAC-10. They won the PAC-10 this year. Then they win a couple districts games and build confidence. It means a lot to the school, to the community and to the players. They get their confidence, and then they're like, wow, this is not just high school soccer. This is an elite program.'
For the nucleus of seniors on the Panthers, it was a down note to end otherwise stellar high school careers.
"We have been with Gino since we were eight, maybe younger,' Kenney said. "It's a big change. It's a big difference in our lives. It's obviously a little emotional, but it was a great season and I'm really proud of everybody on the team.'