Annika Kruse sat on the turf at Coach McNelly Stadium Saturday night, her head on her knees, trying to hold back tears while casting a sidelong glance on the action still persisting on the field.
There was nothing the junior captain could do to reverse the 5-1 loss Spring-Ford was polishing off against Strath Haven. And while the customary end-of-season sadness was lingering in Kruse’s increasingly reddening face, it was short-lived.
Kruse has been through the drill of consolatory hugs three times with the Panthers, the last two by the doing of the Rams. This parting of ways, despite coming at the unusually early juncture of the second round of the District One Class AAA tournament, lacked the gloominess of the others, though.
This time was a little different.
“I definitely do,” Kruse answered when asked about the differences in feelings. “We pulled up so many girls from JV because of all our injuries, and they’ve just been able to show themselves so well, especially tonight. Everyone stepped up this year, and it was great to see. That makes us so much more ready for next year.”
Expectations are a tricky thing at Strath Haven, one of the area’s most successful soccer programs. With the senior core in place last season, goals were set higher than the ouster at the hands of Spring-Ford in the district’s fifth-place playback game. That farewell, to a trio of All-Delco seniors, was of the more tearful variety.
Everything about the demeanor of the Panthers Saturday indicated that the expectations were adjusted for this season’s team and the litany of injuries they sustained. Only five seniors returned; one, Ami Iannello, was lost for all but the final 15 minutes of Saturday’s finale in the season opener with a concussion.
Just about everyone on the team picked up an injury at some point that cost them playing time, meaning continuity was hard to come by. Even against Spring-Ford, star striker Lizzie King limped off late in the first half to have her right knee taped; by game’s end, she sported a bag of ice on her left leg, too.
“It’s been difficult because we’ve had so many injuries,” said Kruse, who missed several games during the season. “It was the small things we needed to work on, and we kept getting hurt and we couldn’t really finish all of it. I think we’re really going to take this year as a really good learning year. We had so many sophomores and juniors starting, and next year we’ll be really good.”
With those growing pains clearly elucidated, the 15-4-3 record the Panthers accumulated is certainly impressive. And while elimination at the hands of the Rams by such a landslide margin was by no means expected, the trip for an 8-9 game against the defending PIAA finalist was always going to be a daunting task.
There were still sad moments, like Kruse and a stunned looking Maddy Tannert-Schmidt, the hard-working senior who had notched her 10th goal of the season for Haven’s only tally, walking off the field together. Tannert-Schmidt is one of five departing seniors, along with defenders Kira Venturini, Shivani Guar and Grace Dickey and Iannello. All five were on the field as the final whistle blew Saturday in a fitting sendoff.
What was most evident Saturday from Strath Haven’s perspective wasn’t what they were losing via the elimination, but what lies ahead. Kruse, a junior captain in a program where that honor is not bestowed lightly, epitomizes that.
The starting lineups of each team Saturday featured just three seniors. Suiting up for the Panthers from the start were three juniors and five sophomores. The midfield fulcrum of Kruse and Carly Glassford returns, as do the sophomore central defense tandem of Claire Van Duyne and Kacy Hafertepe, a talented group that requires more seasoning. Junior Katie Fisher will return for her third season as the starting goalkeeper.
Up front, the forward tandem of King and Maddie Forbes, both sophomores, form a solid basis. Then there’s a bevy of freshmen and JV callups who’ve gotten their feet wet on the varsity level.
That experience will no doubt pay dividends in the future, and Kruse is eager to help facilitate that growth however she can.
“I think we’ll definitely use our experience that every girl got out on the field,” Kruse said. “We had freshmen playing entire games, and I definitely think that will be a big part of next year. We have the experience, we have the skill, we have good friendships with each other because we’re all going to be the same team next year. Of course we’re going to miss our seniors, but we’re going to have so many of the same girls coming back and we have this chemistry, this connection with each other, and we’re going to build on it in the offseason and come back really well.”