Catholic rallies from two-goal deficit to reach Final Four

By Dana Harding

Springfield Catholic’s attack can hurt you in a lot of different ways on the pitch.

The three-headed monster of Emma Skornia, Brinn Cooper and Peyton McNabb have turned rapid-fire goal scoring into an art form this season.

In Wednesday’s quarterfinal matchup with Pleasant Hill, Catholic showcased yet another weapon in its ever-expanding arsenal.

Sophomore Kaleia Huttenlocher scored two goals and assisted on a third to propel the Lady Irish into the state semifinals with a 5-2 victory.

While the score matched its sectional round final against Southern Boone, Catholic’s path through the quarterfinal was vastly different.

From the opening kick, the Lady Irish found themselves under duress, as Pleasant Hill pressured the home squad with a relentless, ball-control attack.

The early nerves were apparent, but Catholic slowly started finding seams in the Chick defense.

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Skornia was denied from the outside left post by Pleasant Hill keeper Jaymie Clevenger, Huttenlocher missed on a crosser in front of the net and the Lady Irish punched a free kick right into the defensive line.

Despite the missed opportunities, Catholic head coach Ben Timson had reason to be optimistic, as he felt his team had weathered the early storm.

“Early on, we were feeling some pressure,” Timson said. “We were nervous. [Pleasant Hill] came out really strong and put a ton of pressure on us in the first 15 minutes. We were able to withstand that, and then we had about three chances down there to go up. We just kept kicking the ball into somebody’s shins in front of a wide-open net.”

Little did Timson know, the worst of Pleasant Hill’s storm was yet to come.

In the 27th minute, Gracie Ring blasted a goal that was deflected into the net to give the Chicks a 1-0 advantage.

Less than two minutes later, goal-scoring savant Mackenzie Dimarco stole the ball near midfield, knifed through a pair of defenders and won a footrace to the goal and a 2-0 lead for Pleasant Hill.

Timson knew slowing down Dimarco would be no easy task.

“Mackenzie Dimarco is just a phenomenal player with all the goals she’s scored,” Timson said. “She got between two of our girls and punched one in.”

Just like that, Catholic found itself down a pair of goals in a critical knockout game.

Fortunately for the Lady Irish, the team’s 15 returning players understand how to deal with adversity, especially after getting knocked out of districts in 2016 for the first time in 14 seasons.

That understanding and veteran leadership starts with Skornia.

“We knew no matter who we were playing today, we had to come out and play hard,” Skornia said. “No goals were going to stop us, so when we got down 1-0, that didn’t get us down. When we got down 2-0, that didn’t get us down. We all worked together, we all came back and we all acted like it was 0-0 the whole game.”

True to her word, Skornia and the Lady Irish took just over a minute to answer.

The senior forward raced down the left side and placed a crosser to Huttenlocher for Catholic’s first goal.

Still down a score, Catholic headed into the half with a huge wave of momentum.

“We came right back, and that was critical,” Timson said. “Emma and Kaleia combine on a beautiful goal, and that gave us some momentum; gave us some confidence that we could do it.”

Timson didn’t have to wait long for that confidence to start paying dividends.

Brinn Cooper won out in a corner-kick scrum in front of the net to blast home the equalizer and start a brand new game for the Lady Irish.

With the advantage starting to shift heavily in Catholic’s favor, Huttenlocher struck again.

The sophomore gathered a pass from Cooper and attacked from outside the left post, Denied initially by Clevenger, Catholic’s newest forward gathered the deflection and blasted home the score.

“I thought I was going to miss it,” Huttenlocher said. “The goalie had it. I thought she was going to catch it, but she puts it out and I put it right in the goal.”

Timson praised both player and assistant coach for a playoff lineup switch that made all the difference.

“[Huttenlocher] was huge for us tonight,” Timson said. “I’ve got to give [assistant coach] Mike Hines a lot of credit for that. We’ve been playing Kaleia in the midfield all season, and at halftime at Southern Boone, Hines said, ‘why don’t you switch Kaleia up top and put Peyton McNabb back in the midfield with Brinn’ and, man … we came out and pounded three goals on Southern Boone with Kaleia up there, and Kaleia and Emma were excellent tonight, as well.”

With Catholic up 3-2, the attacks continued from both teams.

While the Lady Irish showcased plenty of offensive firepower, stellar play from the back line and goalkeeper Ellie Palmer made the difference in turning back repeated Pleasant Hill opportunites.

Palmer’s 15 saves paced Catholic to its first final four appearance since the 2015 season, where the team finished fourth in Class 2 play.

After giving up the initial pair of goals, the junior keeper was able to adjust her focus and elevate her play during the second half. Palmer’s confidence also rose as her team continued to battle its way back into the match.

“As they score more goals, I actually feel more pressure,” Palmer said. “You don’t want to lose the lead you have, so I think a lot of it was I just calmed down. I had my nerves in check, was being aggressive and ready to make the saves.”

Late in the match, Skornia found herself in a one-on-one situation with Clevenger just outside the left post. The Missouri State commit buried the score, then added a repeat performance minutes later from the right side to give Catholic its 5-2 victory.

After seeing Pleasant Hill’s keeper race out of the box to challenge Skornia’s final attempt, Timson’s eyes lit up with excitement.

“It’s just wonderful to see,” Timson said. “Emma struggled last year with her broken leg. To come back this year and make it all the way to the semifinals, I couldn’t be more proud of her for what she’s done for us and for herself. This couldn’t be a better way for her to go out, and she’s not out yet!”

Up next for Catholic (19-4-2) is a May 31 semifinal matchup against Kansas City St. Pius X at Kansas City’s Swope Soccer Village. Cape Girardeau Notre Dame and Duchesne square off in the top half of the bracket that same day.

Varsity Final: Springfield Catholic – 5, Pleasant Hill – 2

First-half scoring
Pleasant Hill 26:35 Gracie Ring (Mackenzie Dimarco assist ) 1-0
Pleasant Hill 28:14 Mackenzie Dimarco (unassisted ) 2-0
Catholic 29:20 Kaleia Huttenlocher (Emma Skornia assist) 2-1

Second-half scoring
Catholic 42:39 Brinn Cooper (Peyton McNabb assist) 2-2
Catholic 53:58 Kaleia Huttenlocher (Brinn Cooper assist) 3-2
Catholic 54:49 Emma Skornia (Kaleia Huttenlocher assist) 4-2
Catholic 42:39 Emma Skornia (Brinn Cooper assist) 5-2