Northwestern Press

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PRESS PHOTO BY BOB FORDThe Tigers’ Emily Renner (15) battles for a ball during the league championship game. PRESS PHOTO BY BOB FORDThe Tigers’ Emily Renner (15) battles for a ball during the league championship game.

Girls soccer falls in league championship

Wednesday, November 4, 2015 by PATRICK MATSINKOpmatsinko@tnonline.com in Sports

In Thursday night’s Colonial League championship game between Northwestern and Southern Lehigh, both teams played with the intensity and skill seen from programs that have been in such a situation before.

The fourth-seeded Lady Tigers were, after all, going for their third straight league title and coming off a District 11 crown and an appearance in the state semifinals.

Though a perennial contender and a mainstay in the playoffs, the No. 3 seeded Spartans were seeking their first league championship since the spring of 2011.

With little room for error and both sides proving to be evenly matched, it was Southern Lehigh that was able to capitalize when it mattered most en route to a 3-1 victory over the Lady Tigers at Northern Lehigh High School.

“Southern Lehigh had their opportunities, we had some opportunities as well, but we didn’t finish ours,” said Northwestern head coach Kelly Bleam. “It was a great soccer game.”

While Northwestern came up short of adding a third consecutive Colonial League crown, they’ll have the opportunity to earn a district championship for a third straight season when the tournament gets underway on Thursday. The Lady Tigers, the No. 4 seed in the Class AA bracket, hosts Allentown Central Catholic on Friday at 3:30 p.m.

After topping the Spartans 4-1 a little more than two weeks ago, it might have seemed as if the Tigers had the Spartans’ number.

And early on, they did. Lydia Danner found the back of the net to give the defending champs a 1-0 lead less than 10 minutes into the game.

But Bleam knew she could glean little from their regular season contest.

“We knew there was no way Southern brought their best to us when we saw them in the regular season,” Bleam said. “This was more of the Southern Lehigh that we expected to see.”

Unfazed by the early deficit, Southern Lehigh got the equalizer with 25 minutes to play in the first half as senior Carryn Jurgens sent to the ball to the net from roughly 40 yards out. A late bounce sent the ball just over Northwestern keeper Amey McKenna’s fingertips and into the back of the net.

Energized by the goal, Southern Lehigh played with a sense of urgency and aggressiveness to maintain the 1-1 score at halftime.

“That was the difference – they never quit,” said Spartans’ head coach Doug Roncolato. “They’re quietly confident, but for the first 15 minutes they had to prove it to themselves before they could prove it to everybody else.”

That attacking mentality was evident from the opening whistle of the second half. Southern Lehigh controlled possession and pushed the tempo, putting Northwestern on its heels.

The Spartans broke through when senior Baleigh Bradley secured the ball in front of a crowded net to give Southern Lehigh a 2-1 lead, an advantage it would never relinquish.

The final tally came from junior Kaitlyn O’Brien, who got free and blasted a shot into the back of the net with 20 seconds to play.

The lift from the upperclassmen was something that didn’t come as a surprise to Roncolato, who watched his team persevere with stellar defense and an opportunistic offense in a 1-0 win over Palisades in the semifinals on Tuesday.

“We have seniors that know how to lead,” Roncolato said. “And it starts in the back with my two center backs (Erin Donnelly and Bridget Cerciello). I have all the confidence in the world in them. They’re going to shut other teams down, they’re going to get the counterattack going and they’re going to direct things from back there.”

While disappointed with the loss, Bleam was proud of what her team accomplished to get to this point, which included shocking top-seed Saucon Valley in the semifinals.

After losing a wealth of talent from arguably the most successful season in program history in 2014, not even Bleam was sure what to expect from this year’s squad.

“They’ve matured a lot,” Bleam said. “Coming into this season, I don’t know that I can say I expected to be in the Colonial League finals. I’m really proud of this young team that I’ve had this season, and they should be really proud of themselves.”

Both Southern Lehigh’s Ellie Cassel and Northwestern’s McKenna made seven saves in goal in the contest.

Southern Lehigh became the fourth No. 2 seed to win the Colonial League title dating back to the spring of 2012. During that stretch, only Northwestern in 2013 was able to win a championship as the top seed.