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Eisenhower girls drop epic D-10 semifinal against Mercer

Eisenhower senior Caroline Smelko (17) eyes the ball during the first half of Monday’s District 10 Class 1A semifinal against Mercer at Franklin High School. Smelko’s goal late in the first half tied the game, 1-1, but Mercer went on to win, 2-1, to advance to play Iroquois in the title game.

FRANKLIN, Pa. — Julia Balaski’s goal less than two minutes into the second half proved to be the game-winner as Mercer advanced to the District 10 Class 1A girls soccer championship game with a 2-1 win over Eisenhower Monday.

With the win, the Mustangs took the playoff rubber match between the two teams. The Knights won the first meeting in 2017, while Mercer has claimed victory the last two seasons.

“They won this game,” Eisenhower coach Diane Elmquist said. “We didn’t lose it. It was a well-fought game and they earned the win.”

At the outset, it looked like the Knights (11-6-2) might break the match open early. Eisenhower had three corner kicks in the first five minutes of the match, but was unable to put any of them in the back of the net.

“We were passing around them at that point,” Elmquist said. “Even getting one of those in would’ve changed the feel of the match.”

Eisenhower senior keeper Faith Johnson gets set to boot the ball on a goal kick during the first half of Monday’s District 10 Class 1A semifinal against Mercer. Johnson played a stellar game in net, but the Lady Knights came up just short, falling 2-1.

Instead, it was the Mustangs (16-3-1) who struck first.

With just under 15 minutes to play in the first half, Peyton Miller took a long lead pass and got behind the defense. She took the ball deep into Eisenhower territory and fired a crossing shot from a sharp angle. The ball went just past a diving Johnson and in for a 1-0 Mercer lead.

“At times, they were a step quicker to the ball,” Elmquist said. “They have good speed to the ball.”

Eisenhower started pressing again late in the half and it paid off with 2:36 left.

Caroline Smelko lined up a free-kick near the 25. She rocketed a shot in on goal that went past Mercer keeper Bailey Grossman and in to knot the match at 1-1.

Eisenhower’s Ava Nizzi throws the ball in during Monday’s District 10 Class 1A semifinal against Mercer at Franklin High School.

The Knights continued to press to close out the half, but couldn’t get another quality chance before the break.

The deciding goal came off a free kick at 41:49.

The ball sailed over the defense and Balaski and Johnson converged on it. Balaski was able to make a spin move with possession and tuck the ball in the near corner for a 2-1 lead.

Smelko nearly tied it again a minute later.

She got past the defense up the middle and fired a shot on goal. Grossman made the initial stop, but couldn’t hold on to the ball. Smelko had leaped

over Grossman and was out of position as the ball trickled towards the goal mouth. Grossman was able to recover as both Mustangs and Knights were nearing the ball and dove on top to preserve the lead.

Eisenhower senior Patricia Bortz plays the ball as Mercer’s Delaney Fisher applies pressure during the second half of Monday’s District 10 Class 1A semifinal at Franklin High School.

The Mercer defense made it hold up.

“We started out passing without issue,” Elmquist said. “When we get frantic, that (passing) goes away.”

Eisenhower had a couple more chances late in the half, but Mercer was able to clear two and a third shot sailed over the crossbar.

The Mustangs advance to the title game Wednesday where they will face Iroquois. The Braves were 1-0 overtime winners over Cambridge Springs Monday.

The Knights, meanwhile, must say goodbye to a senior class that has gone 31-20-3 over the last three years with three straight playoff appearances.

“We’re devastated to lose Faith, Rachel (Frederick), Rebekah (Billstone), Caroline, Trish (Bortz), Hope (Hefright) and Madison (Mohney),” Elmquist said. “It took a couple years to get on the same page, but this is the first year we’ve pulled together as a group. Our bench is deeper than it appeared and it’s all very team-oriented.

“We lose all these solid seniors,” she continued. “But we’ve still got a good core group coming back. We’ve grown together with all of them for three years and we’ve all got each other’s backs.”

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