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Tigers top Tide for title

One of the last things that Northwestern Lehigh girls soccer head coach Kelly Bleam told her players before they took on Schuylkill League champion Pottsville for the District 11 Class 3A championship wasn’t the usual pep-talk, but in reality, it showed the confidence that she has in her team.

Bleam, whose team had notched 11 shutouts this season coming into the finals, warned her players that their meeting against Pottsville wasn’t likely to add to their season shutout totals because Pottsville would bring a lot of offensive firepower.

Bleam was right and her team had to twice battle back from one-goal deficits, but ultimately downed the Tide 4-2 to win its second straight district championship, taking the 3A title this year after winning Class 2A last year.

“One of the last things I told them was that we’re very likely going to give up a goal,” said Bleam. “This is a very good team and they’re great goal scorers, so if we give up a goal, we learn from it, we adjust and we continue to play.

“We had to constantly make adjustments because that team is so good. We had to find a way to solve the problem and it was super hard.”

Early in the game, Pottsville showed off its swift offensive skills when it used crisp passing to weave through the Lady Tigers’ defense and set up Grace Evans for an open shot that gave Tiger goalkeeper Naomi Glassberg little opportunity to defend.

Just as Bleam predicted, Northwestern did learn from the play and adjusted appropriately; what the Tigers didn’t do was panic. As the game approached the midpoint of the first half, Sophia Motolese worked some magic on a corner kick that she was able to make take a left-hand turn on its way past the goal to tie the game. It was the third time this season that Motolese scored on a corner kick.

The second half seemed to be déjà vu all over again as Maddy Lenker got an early goal and Pottsville pushed back to a 2-1 lead over the defending champions. Just seven minutes later, Kylie Zentz battled through two defenders directly in front of the net and again, the game was tied.

With the clock down to 22:00 left in regulation, Motolese again was set to send in a corner kick, which this time headed toward the near post. Lexi Bleam was in the right spot, but as the ball started to sink, it fell to a difficult level for her to play. Basically, Bleam just threw her upper-body at the ball to redirect it into the net for the Tigers’ first lead of the game at 3-2.

“I don’t think she [Bleam] could get her head down far enough, and I think she was looking for any body parts to get on it, so she just kind of used her shoulder and head combination and maybe the ear, too,” said coach Bleam.

“I was just really excited,” said Lexi Bleam of her goal. “Sophia [Motolese] kept putting the ball on frame on every corner. We’re really lucky to have her and that she has the ability to do that.”

From there, it was all about defense for Northwestern. With just under 11 minutes to play, Pottsville fired a shot on goal that Glassberg initially stopped but it bounded off her and stopped directly in front of an open net. As Pottsville rushed toward the ball, senior Maggie Mauro first shielded the ball and then cleared it to preserve the one-goal edge for Northwestern.

“I think everyone thought Naomi [Glassberg] had it, but it got loose,” said Mauro. “I was tracking the girl coming in and I just knew I had to shield her off of it first and afterward I was able to just boot it out,” explained Mauro.

With the game clock dwindling, Pottsville had another open look at the goal, but Glassberg made an athletic play to control the shot, again turning away an opening for Pottsville to tie the game.

Kayla Bardonner decided that a little breathing room would be a good thing and with just five seconds left to play, she wasn’t looking to just run out the clock. Instead, the Northwestern senior put the game out of reach, beating goalie Ava Cesari to finish off the scoring with the Tigers up 4-2.

The win sends Northwestern into the PIAA playoffs to play Archbishop Ryan, the District 12 champion. The thought is that the 10 seniors on the roster will give Northwestern enough experience to send them to the title game in Hershey later this month. There is also added incentive for the Lady Tigers’ run through states since Bleam may be in her final games at the helm of the team.

Bleam, who was hired before the 1999 season is “considering” retiring after Northwestern Lehigh’s run ends.

“I’m not sure I’m going to coach any more games, so this is really awesome,” said Bleam. “I think you just can’t imagine as you’re considering perhaps wrapping up your career, you can’t really imagine that it would end like this.”

PRESS PHOTO BY RON GOWER The Tigers' Maggie Mauro, Bailey Scheffler and Kayla Bardonner are three of the six seniors on this year's league and district champion Northwestern girls soccer team.