Stepping onto one of the biggest stages of their soccer lives Nov. 16 in the PIAA Class AA championship at HersheyPark Stadium, the question was could the Holy Ghost Prep Firebirds accomplish what head coach Kenny Lawson could not when he — as an HGP senior — and the 1991 Ghost team lost to Quaker Valley in the state finale.
While Lawson wasn't there when the ' birds won the ensuing state championship match with Quaker Valley in 1992 before relinquishing it in ' 93, he'll had a front row seat for his team's recent title tilt with District 7 champ West Allegheny (21-1-3), which was appearing in its first ever state championship game.
Locked in a scoreless tie more than 10 minutes into the first overtime period, senior midfielder Tim French tossed a ball in from the corner that landed at the six. Going for it there were WA goalkeeper Spencer Wolfe and Holy Ghost senior MF Matt Crawford. Slow to get to his feet after the collision was Wolfe as the ball caromed over to senior Pierce Skelly, who blasted a shot that Crawford tipped into the back of the net for the game-winning goal.
"It's something that you dream about doing. Going out and winning is something that's really hard to do,' stated French.
"You see a lot of teams that are not able to do it. There's only one victor so it's really special.
"I'm just really happy to be part of this team and part of this school.'
Sophomore goalkeeper Matt Lingerman registered the shutout — his ninth straight clean sheet — for the Firebirds, making three saves in the process. He has not surrendered a goal since Oct. 12 when HGP (20-4) lost to New Jersey soccer power Pennington School. Wolfe turned in two saves for the state runners-up.
"It's an exciting feeling — something that I and my teammates have never experienced before. It's great for the alumni, Holy Ghost — something that's great for our school,' said French.
"We're happy to be a part of it.'
In the history of the program, this was the Firebirds' fifth trip to the PIAA finale. While the Ghost has had plenty of talented teams since the early 90s including one that went to state quarters with Colin O'Neill last year and another that went to state semis in 2011 with Tim Lazorko, none has jelled quite like the current group, says Lawson.
The players agree with the coach.
"Every team is different but I think this team has really come together, which is why I think we've gone this far,' said French. "Every team that I've played on has been great but every team has a different mindset.'
This has been a nice turnaround season for the ' birds who struggled early, falling to state qualifier Father Judge, Neshaminy and North Penn in the first three games of the campaign. The Ghost righted the ship in time however, winning 14 of its last 15 regular season games along with district playoff wins over Pope John Paul II and Lower Moreland and state wins over Lansdale Catholic, Moravian and defending state and 2013 District 3 champion Pequea Valley.
"We approach every game with the mindset that we're going to work hard until we put the ball in the net,' said French.
"We continue to play as a team. We worked hard through practice every week; that's why we've had success.'
With seven seniors in the starting lineup along with youngsters like sophomore Joe Braun and junior Mike Kirby up top, the Firebirds reeled off 11 straight wins after dropping the first three.
"We came in with a hard-working attitude and knew we were going to get to the state championship no matter what we had to do to get there.'
"This team has really developed a good chemistry that has helped us along this way.'
On Nov. 12 at West Chester East, French scored the game's only goal with under 10 minutes to go vs. Pequea Valley. Taking a cross from Kirby, who was streaking down the left side of the pitch, French nailed a left-footed missile that found the back of the net.
"We wanted that win more than anything. Towards the end, we pushed harder,' explained French. "We knew [the goal] was going to come eventually. We had some scoring chances before that and luckily, we got that one.'
The same scenario played out on Halloween at Council Rock North in the district title game vs. Lower Moreland, a Bicentennial League rival the Ghost outpaced by a combined 7-0 score in two regular season duels.
"We couldn't approach it like it was another win,' said French. "We had to approach it like it was a district championship which it was. That's why I think we won the game.'
Skelly and Adam Snyder teamed up with Braun on offense and Lingerman shut out Moravian Academy in the state quarterfinals Nov. 9 at Exeter High School.
When all the totals were in, the Ghost won 20 of its last 21 games including the state championship, the school's first in 21 years.
***NOTES: The first time the Firebirds got to the PIAA final was 1986 when they lost to Elko.
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PIAA Class AA Boys Soccer Championship
Holy Ghost Prep 1, West Allegheny 0
(Nov. 16 at HersheyPark Stadium)
WEST ALLEGHENY 0 0 0 — 0
HOLY GHOST 0 0 1 — 1