Strong defense helps Cherry Hill West girls soccer through deep playoff run

The Lions advanced to the South Jersey Group III championship game as a №10 seed, earning three road playoff victories before falling just short of a sectional title.

Melissa Marini was one of the key players on this year’s Cherry Hill West girls soccer team.

Cherry Hill High School West girls soccer’s 2017 record of 9–7–6 doesn’t properly tell the story of how successful the Lions’ season was.

Placed into the South Jersey Group III playoffs as a №10 seed, Cherry Hill West pulled off three consecutive upsets in the postseason and finished the year with a trip to the sectional finals for the first time since 2010.

The season was a huge improvement over past years for the Lions. Prior to this season, Cherry Hill West hadn’t won more than four games in a season since 2012 and had struggled to even qualify for the playoffs.

However, a couple of changes helped boost Cherry Hill West in 2017. The team had three talented freshmen, Abbigale D’Ambra, Mia Angelucci and Michela Auguadro, start on varsity. The new players meshed well with an otherwise experienced Lions’ roster featuring 10 seniors.

“This year was the most fun year we’ve been a part of because we had all different types of girls,” senior Melissa Marini said.

Another big change was the team’s large improvement on defense. Newcomers such as junior Samantha Santos and D’Ambra at back and Auguadro at goalkeeper were a big factor in the improvement. Additionally, the Lions changed their overall defensive strategy to an aggressive approach this season, where a big focus was put on winning one-on-one battles and transitioning quickly from defense to offense.

The team’s staunch defense was apparent on the scoreboard. The Lions allowed one or fewer goals in 19 of their 22 games this season and didn’t lose a game by more than two goals all year.

“I told the girls that we can move the ball, we can take it to these teams,” head coach Katina Anthony said. “It stemmed from our strong defense, but the midfield was a strong point for us as well this year.”

The team realized its potential after its second game of the season against Timber Creek Regional High School on Sept. 7. The Lions lost to Timber Creek, 1–0, in overtime, but many of the players point to that game as a turning point for the program, as the team struggled against the Chargers the previous year. When Cherry Hill West and Timber Creek met again in October, the Lions controlled the game for a full 80 minutes en route to a 3–1 win.

“After that game, we were really upset,” senior Gabrielle Angelucci said of the Timber Creek loss. “Anthony pointed that out to us and that showed how this season we were all pretty passionate.”

“Right from that game, we realized from there on out, we were going to be better,” junior Madeline Sweeney added.

The Lions quietly entered the playoffs with a record of 6–7–5, but there weren’t any nerves from the players. Anthony’s message to the team was to embrace the role of being an underdog.

“Before each game, she told us that we were the underdog, which was true,” Marini said. “Each game we were the lower seed. We went out and played like we had nothing to lose.”

The Lions were confident as they upset №7 seed Triton Regional High School, 1–0, in round one and №2 seed Mainland Regional High School, 2–1, in the sectional quarterfinals.

In the sectional semifinals, Cherry Hill West met a familiar opponent. Delsea Regional High School had eliminated the Lions in penalty kicks during the 2016 playoffs. After last year’s result, the Lions were eager for revenge in 2017.

“Going into it, we tried not to talk about how we played them before. But once we showed up, it was the same field, the same ref, the same everything,” Marini said.

Cherry Hill West stunned Delsea, 1–0, with Gabrielle Angelucci scoring the game’s only goal.

“It was so satisfying for me,” Angelucci said. “The whole game, we were working so hard and there was still that bitter feeling that we lost in PKs last year.

The win over Delsea sent Cherry Hill West to Ocean City High School for the South Jersey Group III championship game against the №1 seeded Red Raiders. Cherry Hill West and Ocean City battled through 100 minutes of scoreless soccer before going to penalty kicks. In penalty kicks, Ocean City prevailed, 2–1, ending Cherry Hill West’s playoff run.

“It was a battle,” Marini said of the final game. “Both teams were really good defensively, so it was hard to break through.”

As disappointing as it was for the players to come inches short of a sectional title, the players spoke highly of the experience of playing for a championship and lifting the program to its best season in almost a decade.

“They were more upset that it was that close, but in the end, I think they were extremely proud of themselves for where they got and what they did this season,” Anthony said.