Seneca High School’s soccer teams are making underdog playoff runs an annual occurrence.
In 2014, the boys’ team won a pair of playoff games and advanced to the South Jersey Group III semifinals despite only being seeded 13th out of 16 teams in its bracket.
This season, the girls’ soccer team advanced even further. Seeded №10 in the South Jersey Group III tournament, the Golden Eagles upset three higher-seeded teams on the road and advanced all the way to the sectional championship game, where they came one goal short of completing their Cinderella run, as they lost to №4 seed Toms River South, 3–2, in double overtime on Nov. 12.
Head coach Ronald Jensen believes a number of factors played into Seneca’s surprise playoff run. He felt the team was always better than its record and seeding indicated because it played a difficult schedule in the Olympic Conference.
“We played good teams, we played a really difficult schedule,” Jensen said. “The other teams we play that have mediocre .500 records, like Cherry Hill East and Timber Creek, they’re good teams, too. The record doesn’t quite indicate.”
Seneca was seeded №10 after finishing the regular season with an 8–7–2 record. However, the Golden Eagles had played well in the weeks leading up the playoffs, winning four of their last six regular season games.
Jensen said a Sept. 30 game against Washington Township was the turning point for his team this season.
“We came out and scored two goals in the first minute and a half,” Jensen said. “We’re up 3–0 at halftime and we ended up losing the game 4–3. That’s when they realize we can play with a team like Washington Township, but we can’t have breakdowns.”
The Golden Eagles had to overcome a few obstacles along the way. Injuries left Seneca with just three seniors on the roster late in the season. Despite this, Jensen said the seniors’ leadership was important down stretch.
“Their leadership in practices and those games just keeping spirits up and keeping the team focused was rewarding for me to see as a coach,” Jensen said.
Seneca didn’t go into its playoff opener against №7 seed Mainland with the mentality of an underdog. The team’s strong finish to the regular season gave it confidence in the playoffs.
“Instead of saying we were the underdog, we took the opposite idea,” Jensen said. “We said we may be seeded 10th, but we’re no underdog. Going in with that mentality, I told the girls that’s what we worked for. Don’t be surprised that we’re here.”
Against Mainland, №2 seed Hammonton in the quarterfinals and №3 seed Central Regional in the semifinals, Seneca outscored its opponents by a combined score of 9–3. Junior Erin Kersetter scored both goals for Seneca in the Hammonton win, and junior Mackenzie Hoffman recorded her first hat trick of the season against Central. The win over Central was also the 100th in program history.
“Throughout the season, the team started to realize we could play really good soccer,” Jensen said. “As we really got toward the playoffs, that became the mentality. Buckle down defensively and don’t let opportunities slip by on the attack.”
Seneca’s season ended in a wild South Jersey Group III championship game against №4 seed Toms River South. The Golden Eagles battled back from 1–0 and 2–1 deficits to tie the game each time. Seneca and Toms River South went into overtime tied at 2–2, and with time ticking down in the second overtime period, the game appeared to be destined for penalty kicks.
However, Toms River South got a corner kick in the final minute of the second overtime, and Aliya Canfield scored the game-winning goal on a scramble in front of the net, ending Seneca’s playoff run.
“When it ended the way it did, it was a shock,” Jensen said. “It was so sudden.”
Despite the loss, Jensen said the playoff run was important in setting up the program for 2016. Seneca had a lot of underclassmen on its varsity team this year, and Jensen feels his team will have the ability to get back to the sectional final again.
“We have a lot of juniors and sophomores who now have this run under their belt,” Jensen said. “They now know what it takes.”