By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
LACEY TOWNSHIP — It was only fitting that the South Jersey Group 3 bracket of the girls soccer playoffs didn’t have a champion after 100 minutes in the title game. Mainland Regional, the upstart No. 5 seed that knocked off No. 1 Ocean City in a penalty kick shootout in the semifinals, had come by things the hard way all season, and would have to again in another PK shootout against the host Lions.
But luck went the way of No. 3 Lacey Township, as the Lions beat the Mustangs, 3-2, in the shootout to win the championship, the Lions’ first in 24 years.
Mainland keeper Genevieve Morrison and Lacey goalie Lorynn Leporino — both just sophomores — were outstanding in the shootout, as each stopped a pair of shots. In the fifth round of PKs, Lacey sophomore Marley Besser converted her kick, and when Mainland’s final attempt sailed just over the crossbar, the Lions celebrated at midfield.
“She did a phenomenal job,” Lacey coach Jack Mahar said of Leporino. “In the beginning of the year we didn’t even know who was going to be our starter (in goal), but she stepped up. She’s been just amazing.”
“We try to work hard and I think both teams were a little thin with injuries as the game went on, but did the best they could. I certainly could have done a better job with substitution patterns but we go with what we think is the best in a tough situation. Some girls put you in a position that they work so hard you just can’t take them out,” said Mainland coach Chris Meade. “We won by one of these, we lose by one — it’s not a terrific way to decide things, but you have to do something in the 100 minutes. We needed to make a few more plays. Both teams had some chances, and it just didn’t go. For a while, we put a lot of pressure on them and felt like we could have had a couple goals.”
Lacey (15-6-2) got on the board midway through the first half when, after a turnover deep in Mainland’s defensive third, freshman Natalie McGovern got to the spot of a loose ball before Morrison could and poked a shot into the lower right corner to give the Lions a 1-0 lead. Mainland (16-4-3) responded in the 75th minute, as senior Camryn Dirkes scored on a header off a direct kick from about midfield from fellow senior Alyssa Turner. Dirkes’ header looked to be saved by Leporino, but officials ruled the high shot had cross the plane of the goal.
“I had a few backwards head flicks throughout the game and one just happened to go into the net,” Dirkes explained. “I really couldn’t see because the sun was right in my eyes, but it happened to go in.”
“They made that call and we had to play two overtimes. Was it unfortunate? Let’s use that word,” Mahar said. “But it all came out the way we were hoping. My girls always stay focused. Against Clearview (in the semifinals) we were down 2-0 at halftime and they don’t ever give up. I knew we’d be at home (if we won that game) and I said to the girls, ‘how bad do you want to play at home in the championship game?’ And they were lights out in the second half of that game.”
The teams battled through 20 minutes of scoreless overtime as exhaustion began to set in, and neither team could muster much offensive danger as fatigue and injuries started taking their toll.
“We’ve talked about having the mentality that you just have to keep rolling, and what we talked about is having to out-work teams. I felt like in the first half there was a small window when they started to out-work us. I don’t think either team out-worked the other in the second half, everybody was just working hard,” Meade said. “We knew exactly what they were — they are a tough, tough team. They win balls much like we do, and we knew it was going to be this type of game, probably low scoring and a defensive battle. I’m glad it didn’t come down to somebody making a mistake. They made some plays, we made some plays, we just felt short.”
“I think we gave it our all, and that was our intention the entire time. It’s a crappy way to lose a game, but we held them off for 100 minutes and we just weren’t able to come through in the PKs, but that happens,” Dirkes said. “This year, more than any other year that I’ve been on the team, our chemistry was just so strong. We’re so close and our friendships are the best, which makes it even worse that we’re done now, but I think that was the secret formula for getting us this far.”
It’s not inconceivable that these teams could meet in the sectional final in the next couple of years, as each squad has some very good underclassmen, led by their respective goalies. Morrison allowed just two goals in four state playoff games, and saved 40 percent of the penalty kicks she faced in two PK shootouts.
“She’s amazing,” Dirkes said of Morrison. “We rely on her — sometimes a little too much — and she does more than enough for us. She’s been hurting the past couple of games and still gives it her all. She’s a great leader, a great teammate, and she’s super talented.”
After handing the sectional championship trophy to his captains, coach Mahar was at a loss for words to describe his emotions.
“I can’t even think right now, to be honest,” he said. “You never really want it to go to PKs because you never know what can happen, but the girls played their absolute hearts out the entire game. I was just praying that something good was going to happen for them after putting in all the hard work they have all year. We knew going in we were going to have a tough game, and it was.”
What’s next: Lacey takes on Princeton in the Group 3 state semifinal on Wednesday, time and location TBD. Mainland’s season is complete.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays