BEAR – One got the sense watching Padua’s soccer team in 2018 that they really hadn’t gotten over a surprising loss to Middletown in the Division I state championship match last June. The Pandas, long the premier girls team in Delaware, are used to hoisting the trophy, not accepting second-place medals.
The players and coaches used that loss as motivation for this season, and the Pandas – who regularly churn out next-level players and some eye-opening statistics – responded. This season ended with the team taking the first-place hardware back to Wilmington after a convincing 5-1 win over Caesar Rodney on June 1 at Caravel Academy.
Padua finished the season with a 17-1 record. The lone loss came against Chantilly (Va.), a quality opponent. The Pandas took two tough games in Alabama, and their in-state schedule included tournament teams Caesar Rodney, Appoquinimink, Ursuline, Caravel, Division II state champion Delaware Military Academy and Wilmington Charter. They took out Cape Henlopen and Middletown in the tournament before the rematch with Caesar Rodney.
Not only did they win, they were in control in almost every game. They scored 82 goals this season, by far the most in the state, and they allowed just six in 18 games. Only Tower Hill joined Padua in allowing single-digit goals.
This season was the sixth time the Riders had lost to Padua in the final, but this time the game started out so promising for them. Two early corner kicks resulted in the game’s first goal for the Riders, but that just seemed to push the Pandas even harder.
“Maybe them scoring first was what put the fire under our butts to go get five goals,” senior goalkeeper Katie Szczerba said.
Szczerba relayed a story from last year that stayed with her team all season. It involved a tangible reminder of the disappointment of that night in Smyrna.
“At the end of the year, we got a soccer ball, and our coach cut it up and gave each of us a piece of a championship ball, so we all had a piece of the ball to remind ourselves of the pain of the game last year. So we used that for motivation all year to spark us to come back and win it,” Szczerba said.
She and her fellow seniors – Ashlee Brentlinger, Camryn Scully and Brianna Niggebrugge – talked during the offseason about reclaiming the title.
“That was our one goal this season was to get our championship back, and we did that. We talked this year, especially the seniors. We came up with a motto, ‘unfinished business,’ from last year, and we got that business done this year, and it feels so good,” Brentlinger said.
The drive extended down to the players who were not with the team last year. Freshman Brieana Hallo, who scored twice in the final, said falling behind early was not in the plans, but it may have helped.
“I think we just wanted it really bad. We wanted our trophy back,” she said.
Hallo has one championship to her name, but the seniors are leaving with three. Szczerba will remember how she was accepted on a team full of talent like this one.
“It was the best experience of my life. I was nervous coming in at first because this program’s top-notch, but the whole team took me under their wing, and I was one of them real quick,” she said.
For Brentlinger, she is moving on to play college soccer at Florida Gulf Coast University near Fort Myers Beach, but she’ll be following her former team from afar.
I can’t wait to watch them grow next year,” she said. “Always a Panda. The sisterhood will never leave me.”