Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 6/9/21
One of the last things Danielle McNeely said before leaving Unionville High Tuesday afternoon following a tumultuous period pf weather proved prophetic. “At least,” the Strath Haven midfielder said, “we have the ball.”
Thanks to McNeely, the Panthers had the ball all they needed Wednesday. And, also thanks in large part to McNeely, the Panthers have one more game left.
Goals by Laura Conner and Kaitlin Nieczpiel in the final two minutes helped Strath Haven rally for a second time, earning a 12-11 win over Cardinal O’Hara in the PIAA Class 2A semifinals. The Panthers advance to Saturday’s title game at 10 a.m. against the Archbishop Carroll/Twin Valley winner (the game was suspended with AC leading, 11-8, with 15:51 left in the second half).
The game had been suspended with Haven up 9-7 and 12:28 to play Tuesday after dangerous weather descended upon Unionville. Cardinal O’Hara took up the chase Wednesday at Marple Newtown, quickly erasing the deficit and nudging ahead 11-10 thanks to Rachel Familetti’s second goal of the day. But Conner scored from eight meters with 1:53 left, and Nieczpiel slotted home the winner 21 seconds later off a McNeely feed to send Strath Haven (18-5-1) to its first PIAA final since the one-classification setup in 2012.
Wednesday’s semifinal boiled down to two key elements for Strath Haven: Draw controls, and the maturation of its youth. The Panthers had a steady supply of the ball thanks to a 16-8 edge in draw controls. From the time O’Hara led 7-4 on Tuesday, Strath Haven monopolized the final 13 draws, including all seven in Wednesday’s resumption. McNeely, Nieczpiel and Devon Maillet led the way with five DCs apiece.
After taking the 11-10 lead with 2:52 to play, the Lions (16-6) didn’t see the ball again. Their defense caused several key turnovers and Mackenzie Hand (9 saves) was strong in goal, two reasons they tied it at 9-9 on goals by Mia Scarduzio and Familetti.
But late on, as they fruitlessly chased McNeely, the lack of possession wore them down.
“After they score, you can’t quit and get down on yourself because the game is so close,” Familetti said. “I wouldn’t say it’s easy to get the ball back, but you can. You always can. And you’ve got to keep working hard and you can try to beat the team.”
Then there was Haven’s youth movement. McNeely was the dominant player with four goals and six assists. But the O’Hara defense, led by Anastasia Ciminera and Kristen Kutufaris, held 100-goal scorer Maillet to just one goal.
The opened the door for a pair of sophomores and a freshman. Grace Kelly, the rookie, put Haven ahead at 10-9. Claire Natoli and Familetti answered with goals to give O’Hara its last lead at 11-10. But Conner stepped to eight meters and buried an attempt past Hand with 1:53 to play to knot the game for the fourth time.
“It’s amazing having her step up,” McNeely said of Conner. “She didn’t get a season last year, so it’s her first season. But it’s like she’s been playing with us for so long.”
McNeely won the ensuing draw and patiently camped out near the top of the 12. When O’Hara sent the double team, she spied Nieczpiel curling through the eight with a step on her defender. The sophomore, who like Conner didn’t get a freshman season last spring, took three short steps and buried a turning shot past Hand.
“I popped up in the middle and I got it and shot it,” Nieczpiel said. “… It was always the second cutter. That’s always open.”
The ending for O’Hara wasn’t tearful. The District 12 runner-up hadn’t won a PIAA playoff game before this season. With so many youthful talents in Duckenfield’s revitalization of a long-dormant program, the best is yet to come.
“It’s just the beginning,” Kutufaris said. “We have another year, and we’ll be back even stronger.”
The future is bright for Strath Haven, too, only that includes Saturday morning’s meeting with the winner of Archbishop Carroll and Twin Valley.
“It’s amazing,” Nieczpiel said. “Going to the state finals my sophomore year when we didn’t have a freshman year, it means a lot.”
PIAA AA semifinals
Strath Haven 12, Cardinal O’Hara 11
Strath Haven 3 9 – 12
Cardinal O’Hara 6 5 – 11
Danielle McNeely 4g, 6a
Kaitlin Nieczpiel 3g
Mackenzie Murray 1g
Laura Conner 2g, 1a
Devon Maillet 1g
Grace Kelly 1g
Erin Spaulding 4 saves
Ellie Miller 3g, 2a
Mia Scarduzio 4g
Lexi Culp 3a
Rachel Familetti 2g
Claire Natoli 2g
Mackenzie Hand 9 saves