BEAR – The DIAA girls’ Division I state soccer championship match was not yet two minutes old when Padua found itself in an unfamiliar situation. Caesar Rodney, the second-seeded team in the tournament, took advantage on an early corner kick to go in front, 1-0, and the Riders’ fans who had made the trip north may have believed that this was the night when their team finally slayed the giant.
But it didn’t take the No. 1-seeded Pandas long to right the ship. The defense was air-tight after the first five minutes, and the offense took control of the possession game a few minutes later. Padua kept knocking as the half progressed, and the Pandas rolled to a 5-1 win June 1 at Bob Peoples Stadium at Caravel Academy.
It was the school’s ninth soccer state championship, the sixth in the past seven years. Six times, the Pandas have defeated the Riders for the crown. Over the past seven years, the only title the Pandas failed to win was last year, a stinging 1-0 loss to Middletown.
When the match started, Caesar Rodney seemed determined to finally beat their nemesis. The Riders were all over Padua, earning a corner kick in the first minute of play. Padua fended off that attempt, but they Pandas were not so fortunate the next time. Jessie Prillaman took the inbounds pass and sent a shot toward the net. Laynee Ford was there to redirect the ball past Pandas keeper Katie Szczerba to give CR the early lead.
The Riders (14-2-1) were not done playing offense. They earned another corner in the fourth, but the Pandas were able to clear the ball this time. Then Padua gradually took over. They knew it was very early in the evening.
“Normally, we come out strong, and we score first, so having someone else score first hurt, but it did motivate us to get what we wanted back that we lost last year,” Szczerba said. “So maybe them scoring first was what put the fire under our butts to go get five goals.”
Her teammate and fellow senior, Ashlee Brentlinger, agreed.
“We came out with a little bit of a shaky start. We didn’t come out with full intensity like we wanted to, like in the Middletown game last game, so we knew we had to pick it up. After that one goal, we started peppering them, putting the ball in their end, getting shots off, and eventually the shots came. We just kept pounding them and putting it on them,” she said.
The middle of the first half contained several near-misses for the Padua. A few shots missed just wide, and a free kick went over the crossbar by inches in the 29th. The closest CR came to extending the lead was a free kick from Prillaman that missed just high.
With time winding down, the Pandas’ persistence paid off. A shot emanating from a corner kick was blocked, but Rachel Simpson was there to pick up the rebound about 25 yards out to the right of Riders keeper Morgan Desaulniers. Simpson dribbled in and shot, and the ball appeared to deflect off a CR defender and into the net for the equalizer.
In stoppage time, Padua struck again. On this goal, a centering pass found Erin Apostolico. She tapped the ball to Olivia Bocchetti, who redirected it past Desaulniers for the 2-1 halftime lead.
The momentum continued into the second half. It took just two minutes for Brieana Hallo to connect on a pretty free kick from 35 yards out just over the outstretched hands of the keeper. The freshman was thrilled to add her name to Padua championship history.
“It feels great. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and we’re going to strive for this for the next four years. We’re just glad to get it done for the seniors,” Hallo said.
The game would go another 24 minutes before Padua struck again. This time, senior Ashlee Brentlinger collided with a defender in the 18-yard box as she moved in for a shot, and she was awarded a penalty kick. Her decision to shoot along the ground to the right was correct, and it was 4-1.
“I’m confident in my PKs every time. I step up there with confidence. I fully believe in myself. I stick with where I’m going to go. I shoot it there every single time,” she said.
Hallo, who teased Pandas fans with her accomplishments this season, wrapped up the scoring with a left-footer into the far side of the net in the 72nd minute.
Final stats were not available late Friday night. Padua finished the season 17-1, with the only loss coming to a tough foe from Virginia.
“Couldn’t have asked for a better team, especially this year,” said Brentlinger, who will continue her academic and athletic pursuits at Florida Gulf Coast University. “This is a really special team. We haven’t had one quite like it. We have such a great comraderie. I think that’s what really helps this team succeed, and I can’t wait to watch them grow next year.”