By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
MAYS LANDING — Prior to the second overtime period in Thursday’s South Jersey Group 2 quarterfinals, Oakcrest girls soccer coach Jason Hearn told his team that this game was going to come down to who wanted it more — his No. 4 Falcons or the fifth-seeded Pt. Boro Panthers.
It’s a little easier to be confident as a coach when you have a goal keeper like Brielle Smith, especially when advancing to the semifinal round comes down to a penalty kick shootout.
Smith, a junior and perhaps the most athletic keeper in South Jersey, came up with a huge effort, stopping three of Pt. Boro’s PK shots, including the Panthers’ final opportunity in the fifth round of shots. Oakcrest, meanwhile, got goals from Cayla Wyatt, Haleigh Whitcraft and Cleary Brady to outlast Pt. Boro, 3-2, in the shootout after the teams played to a 1-1 draw after 80 minutes of regulation and 20 minutes of overtime.
The Falcons now await either No. 1 Haddonfield or No. 9 West Deptford on Monday for the right to play for a South Jersey title. This is as far as this group of girls has ever gotten in the playoffs, and Thursday’s win was their 15th of the season — a new school record, according to Hearn.
“(Brielle) stayed after practice yesterday and continued to work on PKs. I could just feel the energy from her when we went to them. She was ready,” Hearn said. “So, I was definitely encouraged by that, once we went to it, just seeing how Brielle was ready to go.”
“Throughout the whole game — in the back our heads, ever since I’ve been here, we can’t go to PKs because we weren’t confident in them. Two years ago, at this very field, we lost in that net. So, it means a lot to come back and win it and get over that. Especially me and the girls who had to take the shots — we were terrified. We didn’t want it to come to PKs, but we’ve been working on that for a few weeks knowing it’s a possibility (in the playoffs),” Smith said. “I was surprisingly calm. I was just hoping to get one or two (saves) and know that my girls could get their shots in. I had to have faith in them and they had to have faith in me that we could all get our jobs done.”
It was easy for Smith to say she was calm after the win, but during the shootout both she and her counterpart, Pt. Boro’s Riley Sexton, faced a ton of pressure. Neither wanted to be the keeper who ended up on the losing side.
“It’s a huge rush. Just complete excitement. I could feel the nerves exiting my body as soon as the ball bounced and I grabbed it. It’s the same thing as a walk-off in the World Series. That’s every player’s dream for something like that. You have to make sure you secure it though — I was watching that video of that keeper that went viral, and I definitely did not want to be that keeper,” said Smith, referring to a video on social media showing a goalie saving a penalty shot, then celebrating too soon and the ball coming down and bouncing into the net for a goal. “I made sure I stayed with it and followed it the whole time.”
The Panthers put the pressure on Oakcrest by scoring midway through the second half after being thwarted by Smith, who finished with 15 saves, for more than 65 minutes. Erin Guilfoyle toed a direct kick that came into the box and found herself wide open. She blasted a shot into the lower left corner that Smith had no chance of saving.
Time winded down, but with 11 minutes remaining Oakcrest got the equalizer. Whitcraft sent a direct kick into the box from about 40 yards out. Sexton made the initial save, but Nicolette Curcio corralled the rebound and poked the ball into the open net to make it 1-1.
Oakcrest was energized by the appearance of leading scorer Gabi Johnson in the second half. She looked to be a scratch prior to the game because of a nagging knee injury, but willed herself onto the field in the second half and drew double-team coverage wherever she roamed. The Falcons also were without their other top scoring threat, Jana White, who is out with a concussion.
“She’s been nursing an injury all season and she’s been trying to push through it. Our hope was to rest her as much as possible. She made the call. She said, ‘coach, I’m going to do it for the team.’ So that does show some maturity on her part that even though she is in pain, she was willing to put that aside for the team. Even when she isn’t producing (goals), she’s definitely attracting a couple of defenders, which opens up possibilities,” Hearn said of Johnson. “That’s kind of what it’s been all season, everybody pushing themselves. That shows exactly what it has taken to get to this point, everybody pushing themselves, even a little too far sometimes. But, she made the call. She was banged up and sore, but said she had to do it for the team. Jana suffered an injury in our last regular-season game, and she was chomping at the bit to get out there as well. She wishes she could be out there, and that’s a testament to the team unity and understanding that it’s going to take them all (to win).”
“We knew it was going to be a tough game. We were getting a little beat up, but we just had to keep our heads. They were coming at us pretty hard, but we kept our heads. Our defense has been really strong this year and Brielle made some amazing saves, as always,” Whitcraft said. “We just give it our all, all the time. Getting a goal back with that amount of time left boosted our confidence a lot and made us play better. We pushed ourselves even harder.”
“It was a crazy game. I was very stressed at the end, but Brielle is awesome,” Johnson added. “I wasn’t even planning on playing, but I just had to play through the pain. I figured I would give it my all because it is the playoffs.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays