Spring-Ford’s Sammy Stipa (shown), Sarah Hancock and sophomore Brianna Cirino have headed a midfield that focuses on ball retention and smart passes.
Spring-Ford's Sammy Stipa (shown), Sarah Hancock and sophomore Brianna Cirino have headed a midfield that focuses on ball retention and smart passes. Spring-Ford takes on Seneca Valley in the PIAA-AAA semifinal on Tuesday afternoon at Chambersburg High School. (File photo by John Strickler/ The Mercury)

At the start of the season the Spring-Ford girls soccer team believed it had what it took to make the rest of the Pioneer Athletic Conference pay attention.

Ten weeks later, the Rams have the entire state paying attention.

In a season where the Rams players have rallied around the idea of ' making history,' they will have their next chance to do just that in the PIAA Class AAA semifinals against District 7 champion Seneca Valley Tuesday night at 6 p.m. at Chambersburg High School.

The Spring-Ford program had never won more than one district playoff game prior to this season. Now, the Rams (23-2-1) have captured the PAC-10 championship, qualified for the PIAA playoffs, won their first state-level game and are now just one win away from playing in the PIAA championship game, which is set for Saturday at 4 p.m. at Hersheypark Stadium. District 1 champion Neshaminy — one of only two teams to defeat Spring-Ford this season along with Boyertown — takes on Central Bucks East at William Tennent High School in the other semifinal Tuesday.


As the No. 5 seed from District 1, the Rams have reached the semifinals by winning a pair of games they entered as underdogs. First, they rallied to beat the No. 1 ranked team in Pa. and District 3 champion Cumberland Valley, 2-1, last Tuesday before scoring a convincing 1-0 win over District 1 runner-up Downingtown East in the second round Saturday.

Seneca Valley, located in Cranberry Township, 35 miles north on Pittsburgh, has a reasonable claim at being the favorite Tuesday night after knocking off three-time PIAA champion Peters Township, 2-0, Saturday. It was the third time this season that the Raiders shut out their top District 7 rival.

Under head coach Sheldon Chamberlain and assistants Tim Leyland and Liz Caggiano, Spring-Ford has reached this point with a quick-passing, possession-oriented offense, a high-pressure defense and no visible weaknesses.

The attack features senior Megan Giannopoulos (20 goals, 6 assists), senior Aley Kate McKinley (16 goals, 11 assists) and sophomore Gabrielle Vagnozzi (7 goals, 11 assists).

The midfield is composed of seniors Sammy Stipa and Sarah Hancock and sophomore Brianna Cirino, who work well as a unit in their ball retention and ball pressure. The three play centrally in the Rams' 4-3-3 formation.

On defense, seniors Kaitlyn Dougherty and Julie Pennington are joined by sophomores Taylor Newhart and Laura Suero to form the back line in front of junior goalkeeper Jenna Griggs.

Seneca Valley (20-2-1) has reached this stage because of depth and defense.

The Raiders regularly play 18-19 players a game, often subbing 3-4 players at a time, a la a line change in ice hockey.

Senior goalkeeper Jess Neill and the Raiders have not allowed a goal in their five postseason games, winning both PIAA playoff games in shutout fashion.

Marykate Zahorchak has been a consistent presence in the midfield while Alicia Hart and Lexus Lambert anchor the defense.

Because of their depth and rotation, no attacking player bolsters big numbers. Caroline Miller, Kelsey O'Connor, Emily Wagner, Sarah Anderson, Megan Majeski and Myra Charles all have at least five goals.

Coach Dave Sylvester's rotation policy likely affords his player to treat each game as a sprint instead of a marathon. The Rams — especially the relentless Vagnozzi, Stipa, Cirino and Suero — have found a way to treat each game as a sprint while playing marathon minutes.

District 1 is often regarded as the strongest district in soccer in Pa., but three consecutive AAA girls titles coming from District 7 indicate otherwise.

It's now up to Spring-Ford to change that trend.

Fortunately for the Rams, they've been changing trends every step of the way.

*Follow Austin Hertzog on Twitter @AustinHertzog