DOVER – When Padua visited Wilmington Charter for a girls soccer showdown in early May, the Pandas learned first-hand the damage that Force attacker Sheyenne Allen could do. Allen scored the game-winning goal in overtime as the Force knocked off the then-No. 1 Pandas.
In the Division I state championship match on June 1 at Dover High School, Padua, the third seed, marked Allen non-stop, and they took advantage of their offensive opportunities in a 4-1 victory over the top-seeded Force. For the Pandas, it was their seventh title since Joe Brown took over as coach and the 10th overall for the program. Goalkeeper Sophia Gonser said keeping Allen in check was critical.
“We just had to keep a player on her at all times and make sure she was never free and had no shots, and that’s what we did the whole game, kept her back,” Gonser said.
As good as the defense was – the Force managed just three shots on net – Padua set the tone early with its typical aggressive offense, keeping the pressure on the Force. Led by Paige Kenton, Kristi Cox and Haley Dougherty, they generated some chances early, including one on a throw-in in the fourth minute that was knocked away from a Panda by Charter goalkeeper Gabby Simmons.
Simmons made a save in the 11th minute, and three minutes later the Pandas set up their first corner kick. The set piece nearly worked, as Kenton sent a header just wide. Kenton would strike a few minutes later, putting her squad on top. Cox took a long pass and back-tapped it to Kenton. Her one-on-one shot was blocked at close range by Simmons, but Kenton knocked the rebound into the corner of the net for the 1-0 lead.
Padua keeper Sophia Gonser was not too busy in the first half, but she performed when called upon. In the 30th minute, Annabelle Damude took a pass from Defne Elbeyli, turned and blasted a shot ticketed for the upper 90. Gonser dived to her right and got both hands on the ball.
“That was really exciting. It was just a quick, sudden thought, and that was it,” the keeper said.
After several more offensive chances, the Pandas found themselves with a free kick from about 30 yards out in the final two minutes of the half. Sophomore Brieana Hallo lined it up as several of her teammates took up positions near the net. They proved to be just decoys. Hallo sent a shot off the fingertips of Simmons for the 2-0 lead, which it remained at halftime.
Kenton said offensively, the Pandas made some adjustments from their first meeting with the Force, and it all started with defense.
“I think we just really shut down Sheyenne and focused on working hard on defense and working the ball to the midfield a little better. Our midfield really worked the ball well into the seams for the forwards, and it let us get goals,” Kenton said.
The Pandas could not take advantage of two corner kicks in the 48th minute, and the momentum swung briefly to Charter. The Force earned a free kick in the 54th minute, and they would turn it into their only goal of the afternoon. Julia Koval took the kick from approximately 30 yards out far to the right of Gonser, and Ryan Mundy got her head on the ball, sending it just inside the far post to Gonser’s left. Charter and their fans were energized.
But it didn’t take the Pandas long to regroup. They kept up their pressure all over the field, and a yellow card on the Force resulted in another free kick. Enter Hallo once again. She launched another shot over Simmons from about 27 yards away, restoring the two-goal advantage. This time, the ball snuck an inch under the crossbar. When she lines up those free kicks, Hallo has just one thought on her mind.
“I just go for it,” she said.
Simmons kept the Force’s deficit at two with a nice sliding save on Kenton two minutes later, but there was little she could do on the fourth Padua tally. Kenton corralled the ball near midfield and sent a through ball down the left side to Hallo. She dribbled a few yards and sent a shot off the post to Simmons’ left. It bounced right to Sophia Marini, whose follow went off the arms of a prone Simmons and into the twine.
With the three-goal lead, Pandas coach Joe Brown was able to get his entire roster into the game.
Hallo, who also scored twice in the championship game as a freshman last season, said the Pandas were looking to redeem themselves after dropping that overtime tilt at Charter on May 6.
“We just used that loss as motivation. That was basically our drive,” she said. “It always gets harder, but we’re always going to be ready for it. We practice harder than any team here, so we’re ready for it.”
Kenton said this was a tougher season than normal for the Pandas, and getting the third seed is not something to which they are accustomed, but they found a silver lining in that.
“We definitely got a lower seed than normal. But I think we just used that as motivation and worked through it,” she said.
Final statistics were not available late Saturday night. Padua finished the season 14-3 and graduates just five seniors from its 22-girl roster. They got stronger as the season progressed, and in three postseason games, they outscored their competition, 13-1.
The Force, who will lose just two seniors, suffered their first loss and ended up 16-1-1.
These teams met once before for the state championship, in 2013. The Pandas won that contest, 5-4 in penalty kicks, after the game finished in a scoreless tie after 80 minutes of regulation play and two 10-minute overtime periods.