By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — The first three weeks of the soccer season have been pretty much smooth sailing for Egg Harbor Township, aside from a 1-1 tie with Cedar Creek in the season opener. The Eagles came into the final week of September sporting a 5-0-1 record and had outscored their six opponents 20-3. But things are getting a whole lot tougher as the bulk of the Cape-Atlantic League schedule starts to come into sharper focus.
In a week that features matchups against tough teams such as Millville, Mainland Regional and West Deptford, Eagles coach Christian Weich told his players to tie their shoes a little tighter, because things were about to get a little rougher. The Eagles travel to Mainland on Wednesday at 7 p.m. before returning home Friday to take on West Deptford at 3:45 p.m.
Millville brought a physical, skilled team into EHT’s Silver Eagle Stadium on Monday afternoon, but the Eagles’ defense was up to the challenge, and senior striker Stefania Piantadosi knocked home a tally in the final minute of the first half to give EHT the goal it needed for a 1-0 victory over the Thunderbolts.
“We knew all along this would be a challenging week, and this would be a telltale week for our season in general. We’ve had these games circled since June. The girls know what’s at stake,” Weich said. “They know their reputation — not only in the Cape-Atlantic League but in South Jersey — is at stake this week, with our sights on the coaches tournament and things like that. They responded today and got the result we needed, and now we’ll look to hopefully repeat that on Wednesday.”
“I think this was a major test for us,” Piantadosi said. “We haven’t had the best competition to play and this was one of the better teams we’ve played so far, so to come out and be able to make our mark is good.”
“We have Mainland coming up next, so this game and the Mainland game will really set us in the CAL. If we win both, we should be able to win the CAL title,” added Siani Magruder, a senior defender.
The win allowed EHT (6-0-1, 4-0) to move into a first-place tie with Mainland (6-1, 4-0) atop the CAL American standings, with Millville (4-1, 3-1) right behind.
Egg Harbor Township relied on a strong defense, led by Magruder, junior Emily Rudolph and a pair of freshmen in Meghan Maul and Casey Biglan, to neutralize Millville’s offensive threats and provide through balls for counter attacks. That’s how the Eagles scored their lone goal, as Nicole Danz gained possession in EHT’s defensive third, found Isabella Callender, and Callender played a perfect ball to Piantodosi, who made a run up the middle before beating the goalkeeper to the lower left corner.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy getting a goal, so it was more get the goal however it happens, and breaking them down was probably the best way to do it,” Piantadosi said. “(The goal) happened so fast. Nikki (Danz) got the ball and played it back to Bella, and Bella played a great ball through and I was able to slide it home.”
“They are always well coached. I thought they were skilled even more than they were physical. They have some quality players who can move the ball well and can attack — maybe a little different Millville team that I would have expected, but nonetheless a quality team,” Weich said. “The turf is big and it’s a long field, so there is a lot of space that we try to exploit. We thought we could do that, so that was the tactic today. I thought all three of their scorers were mostly central, so if we could clog that down and shut that down we would be successful.”
The Eagles had a great opportunity to go up 2-0 early in the second half, but Piantadosi’s shot from distance clanged off the left post.
“It happens way too often for my liking. You want it to go in, but luckily we were up,” she said.
The Eagles’ defense was the story of the game however, as that unit helped senior goalie Courtney Flaherty record her fourth clean sheet of the season with relatively little danger.
“To shut out a team like Millville speaks for itself. This is our fourth shutout of the year, and it’s a great (defensive) unit, a great group of kids. All four of them in the back are quality people who work their butts off for you, and with Siani’s leadership back there it’s a successful unit,” Weich said. “And Courtney, this is her third year starting varsity. I don’t think she was particularly tested today, but she’s been known to make big saves when she needs to and we expect her to do that on Wednesday when called upon.”
“Defending our home turf is the biggest thing we like to do. Barely losing the CAL title a year ago, our goal is to win it this year, and this is just one step in the right direction,” Piantadosi said. “They are definitely a great back line and we feel very comfortable with them back there. I wouldn’t want to have anybody else back there.”
Added Magruder, “We were really good with supporting each other, which helped a lot. Our defenders are new to the competition, so it was hard to stay organized, but we were able to pull through and we support each other. We knew (Millville’s style) was coming, but we weren’t really used to it because we haven’t played a team like that yet. But we adjusted pretty well to it and were able to step up our game.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays