Norwin girls to lean on big-game experience against Neshaminy in PIAA title game
On the verge of greatness, Norwin soccer players can lean on big-game experiences to help reduce the sweaty palms, calm the pounding hearts and dim the bright glare of the state championship stage.
Norwin (20-2-1), set to face Neshaminy (19-6-1) at 4 p.m. Friday at Hersheypark Stadium for the PIAA Class AAAA title, has played in three consecutive WPIAL finals.
Six senior players — Emily Harrigan, Sam Wexell, Emily Arnold, Katy Ericson, Lexy Kendro and Alyssa Victor — were members of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Academy team that won the U19 U.S. Cup national championship over the summer.
So, the state final can't be that pressurized, can it? It's Hershey, after all, where the air smells like chocolate and just getting there is sweet.
“The girls are used to pretty big stages,” Norwin coach Lauren Karcher said. “I think in a way, this is bigger: this is something totally different. It's representing your community and school. This is a group of girls you had to grow with. You're not given the choice of who is on this team. We're all from the same school and representing each other and working together day after day.”
Wexell, the senior goalkeeper and an Ohio recruit who has more shutouts than anyone in school history (52), said playing against better competition will have an important impact on the Knights when they take the field Friday.
“Nationals and even showcases where there is a lot of pressure on you, where you're playing in front of a bunch of college scouts, nerves are not as high,” said Wexell, a fourth-year starter. “You're used to playing with a lot of weight on your shoulders.”
Harrigan, a Rutgers recruit who has 26 goals and 15 assists this season and is the Knights' all-time leader in goals (93), thinks the state final will be unique.
She also has started for four seasons.
“It will be a huge crowd, I know we already had 45 students signed up to go (as of Wednesday) and there probably will be more,” Harrigan said. “We're all used to big games but not playing in front of a crowd this big. I don't know if any of the other games we've played in can compare. It's going to be insane.”
Victor was injured during the Cup season but made a surprise return late in the high school season and reenergized an already talented offense.
Suddenly, the Knights had eight starters back from last year and resembled the group Karcher foresaw.
Victor mentioned the girls having success at the youth level, too, and a state title serving as the culmination of a decade-plus together.
“As a team we've gotten into our groove, and we're getting better each and every game,” Victor said. “We want this so bad. It's been four years for the seniors, and we've gotten so close every year. We think this is our year, we're finally going to do it, and we can't wait. We want to make history and go out with a bang.”
With three straight shutouts, Norwin obviously scored first in each of its state playoff wins. Wexell said that could be the key to raising the PIAA trophy.
“It helps, especially when the other team is getting a lot of chances early,” Wexell said. “Then you kind of settle down. It feels better defending a lead than playing 0-0. It helped us calm down and possess the ball (against Conestoga Valley). That style of play is what helped us get our second goal.
“We have to prepare well with the trip. Getting ourselves ready and focused. We need to capitalize right away and score early. That can change the whole game. If we settle the game ourselves and control the game, we'll be good.”
Reaching the state final does not erase two losses and a tie to Penn-Trafford. The bad feeling still lurks. Norwin developed an allergy to the crosstown Warriors, just as the Warriors developed an immunity to the Knights.
The teams almost met again in the state quarterfinals, but WPIAL champ Penn-Trafford was tripped up by North Allegheny, 2-0, in the first round.
“The Penn-Trafford losses are still in the back of our minds,” Victor said. “There is nothing we can do about it now. It's done. It happened. We just use that as motivation for each game because we never want to feel that way again.”
Norwin began the season No. 1 in the country in the Top Drawer national rankings, but a near-midseason loss to Penn-Trafford shunned the Knights from the Top 50.
“Norwin is very organized defensively ... so just being able to get behind their defense is important,” Neshaminy coach Chelsea Lovelace said. “As a team we just need to show up ready to go and leave it all on the field. Play a full 80 minutes full of focus and energy and the rest will follow.”
Norwin has nine college-bound players: Wexell, Harrigan (Rutgers), Kendro (Duquesne), Victor (Duquesne), Arnold (Slippery Rock), Ericson (Slippery Rock), Maddy Genicola (Duquesne), Eva Frankovic (Kent State), and Julia Scamardi (Seton Hill).
Neshaminy has four: Nicole Palmer (Morehead State), Jackie Ziegler (Holy Family), Fiona McDonald (Juniata), and Michaela Boyd (Palm Beach Atlantic).
Neshaminy knows something about upsetting highly ranked teams. It knocked off District 11 champion Parkland, 2-1, in the first round. Parkland was ranked No. 1 in the state and No. 10 in the nation at the time.
“I don't think there's anybody who's sad about going to Hershey,” Karcher said. “It's a great way to end the season, especially after how well the girls have done the past four years. This is a great ending for everybody. Hopefully, we can go in there and take it all.”