HERSHEY — The Spring-Ford girls soccer team has made a living this season by bringing its best while being underestimated.
With apologies to the Rams, they shouldn't plan on being underestimated again.
In their most momentous occasion in a season full of them, Megan Giannopoulos fired in two goals including the eventual game-winner with just 5:41 left to play as Spring-Ford stunned District 3 champion and previously unbeaten Cumberland Valley, 2-1, to capture the program's first-ever victory in the PIAA Class AAA Championships Tuesday night at Hersheypark Stadium.
"I think the pure desire to win carried us through,' Giannopoulos said. "Honestly, I've never been on a team that wants it so bad. We believe in ourselves so much and believe in our ability that we can win.'
Spring-Ford needed that desire against an undefeated Eagles team that was ranked No. 1 in the state. Cumberland Valley looked every bit of it in dominating the first 10 minutes of the game and cashed in when junior forward Jen Falconer put the finishing touch on junior midfielder Molly Stanton's free kick from the left side to give the Eagles an early 1-0 lead.
It only served to rally the Rams — and actually relax them.
"When we get down it doesn't stop us. We know we can come back and score two goals and win. We believed that we could advance to the second round of states. We believe we can win states so our mentality throughout this whole experience has been about being fueled by our desire to win,' Giannopoulos said.
Suffice it to say, Cumberland Valley would rather not see ' Spring-Ford' lined up as the opposition in any future trips to Hershey. That's twice in a row on the PIAA stage that the Rams have gotten the better of the Eagles after Spring-Ford defeated Cumberland Valley in the PIAA Class AAAA girls basketball championship last winter.
Senior midfielder Sammy Stipa, who led the Rams on that basketball title run, wasn't feeling charitable on the soccer field either.
"I knew I saw them in states in basketball,' Stipa said of Cumberland Valley and specifically basketball players Falconer and Taylor Sneidman. "I didn't want to lose to them once.
"In soccer, I want to win states (also). I feel bad for them. They are great competitors, but it felt great to win.'
It took many outstanding performances to deal Cumberland Valley its first loss.
"We just knew that we had to win. They had never lost before and we wanted to make history,' midfielder Brianna Cirino said.
Cirino, defender Laura Suero and forward Gabrielle Vagnozzi, who helped set up the Rams' first goal, were especially crucial in helping Spring-Ford settle into the game thanks to their endless work rates. With Suero and sophomore defender Taylor Newhart leading the charge, along with center back Kaitlyn Dougherty and right back Tessa Nykanen, the Rams defense stood tall against a potent CV attack that hung five goals on Wilson in the District 3 final.
As Spring-Ford worked its way into the game after the early deficit, it had two good chances on a pair of Aley Kate McKinley corner kicks, but they were headed high by Suero and Stipa, respectively.
"The first 10 minutes was definitely shaky from us. It's Cumberland Valley, they're a No. 1 seed (District 3 champion) so I think we started off a little nervous and that showed in the first 10 minutes. But after a while we settled in and we started playing our game. And we showed everybody that we can possess the ball as well as anyone and can play with anyone,' Giannopoulos said.
The Rams got their breakthrough with 3:25 before the half when Vagnozzi, who shifted to striker from the right wing early on, carried the ball into the CV penalty area. She got to the doorstep of goal but lost possession. She didn't allow the Eagles defender to clear the ball, which fell to the left side to Giannopoulos. Giannopoulos got a few touches to press toward goal and hit a high shot as she was falling to knot the game 1-1.
"That was all Gabrielle. I would not have had that goal if she had not had the desire to get the ball in the net. She dribbled in, got the ball taken but thrust her body to get the ball back. I was able to get the ball at my feet,' Giannopoulos said. "It was pretty insane. I didn't even know the ball went in the net. I looked up and everyone was cheering.'
Cumberland Valley opened the second half strongly as it did in the first 40 but this time Spring-Ford and goalkeeper Jenna Griggs (nine saves) withstood the pressure without surrendering a goal.
Again the Rams worked their way into the half and had their best opportunities with Giannopoulos dribbling at and through the defense down the left side.
The Eagles' three defender system was something Spring-Ford coach Sheldon Chamberlain looked for his team to exploit.
"As the second half started we got stronger. They played up with three backs. We knew we could get at that three-back system and we did,' Chamberlain said.
Giannopoulos got free down the left on two occasions, but both shots were saved by CV freshman goalkeeper Sydney Bruckner.
But not the third.
"The (second) shot she saved, which was the harder shot, I didn't get a great angle on it. I hit it in the middle of the net as opposed to striking it into the side-netting, which is what I normally try to do,' Giannopoulos said. "The third time, I had more space to shoot and I think my angle was better...as you could see. It was nice.'
Giannopoulos got behind the defense and this time cut back on to her less-dominant right foot and curled a shot into the side-netting on the far side to put Spring-Ford up 2-1 with under six minutes to play.
"Megan's a heck of a player,' Chamberlain said. "We hound them about playing the channels, crossing and finishing but they didn't do that (very well throughout the game). So Megan had to take things by herself.'
The Eagles nearly got the tying goal when Falconer got behind the Rams defense on a breakaway, only to flash her shot wide left with 2:45 left. With that bullet dodged, the Rams were able to see out their first victory at the PIAA level after winning their first Pioneer Athletic Conference championship and claiming District 1's final berth in states.
"We wouldn't be the same without every single one of us,' Giannopoulos said. "We are a package deal and without one of us we're not the same. We are a strong team in every single area. We have an incredible midfield, we have an incredible defense, Taylor, KJ, everyone ... everyone has the ability.'
"It's incredible,' Cirino said. "This is the best team I've ever played with and all these girls are so great. Being here is unreal.'
' Here' is somewhere the Rams certainly will hope to be in a week and a half, back at Hersheypark Stadium playing for the PIAA championship.
Spring-Ford will face District 1 runner-up Downingtown East, a 5-1 winner over District 3's Dover, in the second round Saturday at a time and venue to be determined. ... Along with Boyertown's 4-0 win over District 11 champion Easton, the PAC-10 had two winners at the state level for the first time in league history. District 1, which also got wins from Neshaminy and Central Bucks East, went 5-0 in the first round. ... Spring-Ford had a slight advantage in shots on goal, 10-9.