By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
OCEAN CITY — The Lacey Township girls soccer team had the grit and determination to make it to the South Jersey Group 3 championship game. The Lions had the hustle in the midfield. They had confidence. They just didn’t have Faith Slimmer and Paige Panico.
After a mostly lackluster first half, Panico found the back of the net in the 36th minute, then combined with Slimmer — Ocean City’s star freshman striker — on a second goal late in the game to spark the host Red Raiders to a 2-0 victory. Top-seeded Ocean City will meet Cinderella story Cherry Hill West, the bracket’s No. 10 seed, on Thursday in the sectional championship game in Ocean City.
“We knew they were playing three in the back, so we needed to get people who were fast in there. So, we put Paige up at the top and that really worked for us. She normally plays outside midfielder. We were frustrated in the beginning a little bit. We didn’t really figure things out until the end of the first half,” said Hannah Nathan, one of Ocean City’s captains. “At halftime we talked about playing a lot of through balls and let them try to play it from there.”
Lacey (14-6) put some pressure on Ocean City’s defense early, forcing goalie Abbey Fenton to make a big save in just the sixth minute. Then, later in the half, the Lions’ Faith Lahaye ripped a shot from about 20 yards out, but Fenton was able to punch it over the crossbar and out of danger. Flirting with danger and coming out unscathed energized the Red Raiders, and they capitalized with 3:07 left in the first half when Tanis McDonnell stole a pass at midfield, pushed the ball up to Panico, and watched as Panico drilled a shot into the lower right to put Ocean City up 1-0.
Ocean City’s defense and midfield, led by players such as Anna Devlin, Haley Harper and Carly Reighard, calmed things down in the back in the second half, which allowed Panico and Slimmer to go to work in the offensive third. Lacey keeper Caitie Hughes kept the Lions in the game, however, making several key saves.
But with less than 16 minutes remaining, Panico stole the ball about 25 yards from goal, dribbled down the right side and sent a cross in to Slimmer, who blasted a shot off Hughes’ hands and in for the Red Raiders’ second goal.
“It’s really exciting and I can’t wait to play in the championship. This team is amazing and we’re doing so well this year. I hope we can win it,” Panico said. “Once we figured out how they were playing we were able to step up our game and we were able to take it to them. I always trust Faith, but it’s more fun when I get to be up there with her. I’ve scored some goals this year, but the one today was the most exciting one.”
“We definitely felt like we had it in us to get this far. We’ve been putting in a lot of practice, no days off, and everyone is supportive of each other. This is a great team to be a part of,” Slimmer said. “Lacey was definitely putting a lot of pressure on us and we were struggling to connect our passes. But, once we got our passes going, we built it up toward their side of the field and got some shots off. In the second half, we got even better and the intensity rose a lot. The pressure was off (after the first goal) but it’s always nice to get a second one to lock up the win.
“Our defense and midfield put a lot of pressure on some of their best players and were able to shut them down,” she added. “They are great back there, and it’s very comforting to have great players like that back there defending. It takes a lot of stress away from us and lets us just do our jobs up top.”
Ocean City (19-3) still has to win one more game to win a title and keep its season alive, and the Red Raiders said they are ready for Thursday.
“It’s great. It’s very exciting,” Nathan said.
“This is awesome. All the practice is paying off and it’s exciting to be here,” added Slimmer.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays