By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
VOORHEES — If you looked at Twitter (now called X) last night and saw that the Eastern Regional girls soccer team beat Paul VI by a score of 3-0 on Wednesday afternoon you’d probably think the game was a blowout.
Eastern, the No. 2 team currently in the Olympic Conference American Division, and Paul VI — leader’s of the league’s National Division — went at it tooth-and-nail the whole way and it took Eastern nearly an hour to break a scoreless tie. The Vikings picked up a pair of insurance goals in the final eight minutes, but through 70-plus minutes this game’s outcome was very much in doubt.
“We know they have a good back line and they are solid all across the field, so it was all about working our hardest. We’ve been working a lot in practice on finishing our chances, and we finally starting putting some goals on the board in the second half. We were in their end the entire game, it was just all about finishing and keeping our energy up the entire game,” said Eastern senior center back Remi Cherkas. “We talked at halftime about finishing. As our coaches said, we were playing well all around and there was nothing to critique except that last touch. Knowing that we had so many chances, we knew eventually it was going to go our way.”
Eastern (12-1, 4-1 Olympic American) had some golden opportunities in the first half but couldn’t find the back of the net. Early on, Johnna Gonter sent a cross in to Nevaeh Roark, but Roark’s header went high. About 10 minutes later, Gonter made a run to the flag in the right corner and sent a beautiful cross into the box and Roark’s show went just wide to the left.
At halftime, the Vikings were clearly frustrated that all their hard work in possessing the ball and creating chances still left them with a goose egg on the scoreboard.
“We knew coming into this year that we were going to have to work a little bit harder (to score),” said senior midfielder Izzy Benfield. “We don’t have, as coach says all the time, that one big player who is going to dribble through the whole team and score. We all have to work together, and that’s been working for us. We practice who is going to be where and knowing what to do. When we’re playing the ball up our forwards know to run to it and go.
“We knew one goal wasn’t going to be enough, we needed multiple goals and to get into their heads and shut the game down,” Benfield added. “We were knocking on the door halfway through the game, we just needed to get one in so we could shut the door.”
“It was one of those games where we deserved a 3-0 win, it just took us a while to get to 3-0. We had so many chances in the first half — goals that you can’t make up when you miss those shots. You start getting a little nervous when you’re not finishing, but once we got that first one it kind of opened things up a little bit and everybody was able to relax. We played very well today, but obviously you have to put the ball into the net, and we were finally able to crack their defense,” said Vikings coach Jamie McGroarty. “We were frustrated (at halftime) but we’ve been like that all season, so we’re used to it. You try to stay positive in your talk at halftime because they were working hard, it wasn’t a matter of effort, it was just a matter of finishing. We were frustrated, but at the same time we were creating chances. When you’re not creating chances that can be an issue.”
Eastern broke through in the 57th minute as Lily Burt won possession at the Eagles’ 18-yard line and sent a ball through to Roark, who finished into the lower left of the goal to put the Vikings up, 1-0.
“We all have a good bond together. We all play well together, we know who we have around us. We have really good speed up top, and the Eastern game works with our speed up top. It’s all about working together,” Cherkas said.
“We just said, ‘let’s just keep doing what we’re doing.’ We were creating chances, we were working hard and putting pressure on them, and we finally broke through,” McGroarty said. “But that’s been our season, it takes us a while to get going because we don’t have that alpha dog up top, but we do have a lot of people contributing. That’s a good thing.”
Eastern scored off a set piece in the 72nd minute to stretch its lead to 2-0. Burt took the free kick, which essentially was a corner kick based on where the foul was committed, and after a scrum in the box senior Grace Francesconi knocked home the loose ball. Then, with 4:35 remaining, freshman Leah Schuenemann gained possession on a counter attack and pushed a ball up to Gonter, who took a touch and fired a shot into the upper left corner of the goal for a 3-0 Vikings lead.
“Usually we’re good with scoring on set pieces, that’s our thing,” Benfield said. “(Cherkas) has seven goals as a center back because we score a lot off corners and free kicks. We just worked our hardest, and it came to us.”
“Every game we look for (set pieces). When you don’t have a true goal scorer you have to be a little creative to get (goal-scoring) chances, and set plays become more important — those long throw-ins, corners, free kicks,” McGroarty said. “I tell them all the time, that can be the difference in a 1-0 state playoff game, somebody scoring on a set play. These games are good practice for that.”
Eastern has a shot at the top seed in the prestigious Coaches Cup and is fighting for that top spot with the likes of Shawnee (the only team to beat the Vikings this season), Kingsway and Ocean City.
“This gives us a lot of confidence,” Benfield said. “We want to be the first seed for the Coaches Cup and we knew we had to work really hard. We have a bunch of big games coming up, so we knew coming into this week that we have to work for everything. We need these wins.”
WHAT’S NEXT: Eastern travels to Kingsway on Friday at 4 p.m. Paul VI travels to Pennington on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter/X @GDsullysays