Teams don’t get any closer to winning a state title without, well, winning a state title than Strath Haven did a year ago.
The Panthers stymied defending champion Garnet Valley all game, even holding the Jaguars scoreless for the length of an entire half, and looked primed for a title. However, Garnet Valley rallied back to tie the game in the final minute before winning in overtime.
It’s doubtful that Strath Haven needs to be reminded of what happened. It’s what has pushed the Panthers all offseason even as most of the players were playing for successful soccer, field hockey and cross-country teams. They’re back on the field and off to a 2-0 start, but coach Rachel Busza will be the first to tell you that results in May and June, not March, are what people remember.
A year ago, Strath Haven dropped five straight games after winning its opener and were pretty much left for dead. They battled back and made the state tournament before pulling off their magical Cinderella run that was highlighted by one-goal wins over Archbishop Carroll and Conestoga.
That’s how Busza wants her team to be again this year. The Panthers
probably won’t lose five games in a row. They might not lose five all year, but the message is the same. Style points don’t matter. Wins matter.
“To me, it’s more about going to the final dance than you’re getting done in the season,” Busza said. “Last year, I’d look at other teams early and be like, ‘Oh my God. They’re so structured, they’re so diligent and they’re like a machine.’ But it’s about what you do at the end.”
Because of what it did at the end of 2012, Strath Haven went from afterthought to one of the favorites to claim the PIAA title. As always, that will go through the Central League and the likes of Radnor, Conestoga, Harriton, Springfield and Garnet Valley won’t go down without a fight. However, Busza has as good or better a returning group as anyone to work with.
That starts with a special group of six players led by seniors Hallie Yancey (goalie, Robert Morris), Jess Borbee (defender, William Smith for both field hockey and lacrosse), Kirsten Wilhelmsen (midfielder, Lafayette), Daily Times Soccer Player of the Year Morgan Glassford (midfielder, Temple) and juniors Kristen Hansen (midfielder, UConn) and Lily Kovach (midfielder, Michigan).
Yancey was as big a reason as any for the Panthers’ run last spring. She elevated her game to another level in the postseason and figures to be a prominent member of the All-Delco discussion by year’s end. She’ll have a lot of help from Borbee, a field hockey All-Delco with tremendous defensive instincts, and Kovach, who risked her coach’s wrath by committing to the Wolverines. Busza is a huge Ohio State fan, so that probably makes for some friendly banter back and forth, but there’s no doubt how she feels about Kovach’s play on the field.
“Both Jess and Lily are really underrated,” Busza said. “Jess mostly because she’s a low defender and most people don’t notice her, but she’s really, really good defensively.”
If you want to beat the Panthers this year, you better expect to a run…a lot. Busza runs two midfield lines, so you won’t get too many players designated as strictly attack players. Hey, whatever works, right?
“Our team speed is excellent,” Busza said “We’re very, very fast.”
Part of that speed are Glassford and Wilhelmsen. Glassford was the team’s leading scorer a year ago and Wilhelmsen is “the most underrated player in the Central League”, according to Busza. They’ll keep goalies occupied, but they also don’t shirk from their defensive responsibilities. No one does if they want to play for Busza. They’ll also get help from Suzanna Penikis, a sophomore – you guessed it – midfielder that Busza raved about.
“She’s got great off ball sense,” Busza said of Penikis. “She’s really focused under pressure and is really good at seeing the field.”
Katherine Restrepo will also get her fair share of goals and the junior attack will also work with classmate Erica Conner, who suffered a torn ACL last year. So with that type of depth, don’t expect anyone to have insane, off-the-charts numbers. Rather, the Panthers’ depth will help them wear teams down, especially with how much they’ll run.
And if everything goes right for them, they’ll be running off the Hersheypark Stadium turf with a championship trophy in their hands this time around.
– MATT CHANDIK