East Juniata relies on defense in the quest for title

Sentinel file photo
East Juniata’s Eleana Benner tangles with a Calvary Christian player for a ball in a state quarterfinal game.

COCOLAMUS — It’s often said “offense wins games, defense wins championships,” and East Juniata is living up to the cliche by winning each of its first two state playoff games by a slim 1-0 margin.

A team can’t win if it can’t score and East Juniata’s bend-don’t-break defense has shut down both District 3 and defending state champion Fairfield and Calvary Christian.

The Tigers take on Camp Hill at in a PIAA Class A girls soccer semifinal at Central Dauphin Middle School’s Landis Field in Harrisburg tonight at 5:30.

“We’ve been fortunate to have such a terrific defense all year,” East Juniata coach Valeria Dressler said. “The second state game, we had a couple of slip ups, but we had such good recovery from everybody.”

Camp Hill, the District 3 runner-up, defeated Bloomsburg — the last team to defeat East Juniata, in the District 4 Class A championship game — taking matters 3-2 (4-1 in penalty kicks).

That stakes obviously get higher with each passing round, and a win tonight would give the Tigers a spot in the Class A state championship game Saturday against the winner of District 7 champion Greensburg and runner-up Shady Side.

Despite being inexperienced for playing at this time of year — it’s the furthest the program has ever gone in a season — the Tigers are acting and playing like they have been there, done that.

“Pressure is not something we let get to us,” Dressler said. “The enjoyment is still here and now it’s just the mental game because mentally, they need to just relax and play their game. We’ve been letting them enjoy being here because you just never know if it’s going to be your last practice of the season or not.”

Dressler admits the coaching staff doesn’t look at an upcoming opponent’s video footage because they don’t want the coaches or players to get too far ahead of themselves.

Instead, they focus as a unit on the little things and help keep the team from overthinking and jumping too far ahead of the situation at hand. Dressler and the coaching staff — consisting of her husband Christian and brother Pietro Passalacqua — jump in on practice and help keep matters lighthearted. They’ll often see the competitive side of the players, but also the comedy side, making sure to joke around as evidenced by the team laughing if someone does something silly like trip over the ball.

It’s helped the team bond in ways Dressler has not seen dating back to her days of playing at East Juniata thanks in large part to the contributions the coaching staff has been given by the team’s six seniors.

“As soon as preseason started, I’ve never seen a team be closer to a family,” Dressler said. “I’ve played four years of high school, four years of college, and they just adapted so well to taking the young girls in and being so postive. If one messes up at practice, we find the seniors breaking it down for them and teaching them the technique in drills. That’s great because there’s 30 girls and just three of us coaches.”

It’s paid off dramatically in the state tournament. The two goals the Tigers have scored have come off the feet of freshman Leah Sankey and sophomore Thea Neimond.

Neimond didn’t come as much of a surprise when it came to wearing the cape for the Tigers, finishing in the top five for both goals (fourth-14) and overall points (third-37) in the Tri-Valley League. It goes to show the depth East Juniata has with Hailey Swartz not getting in on the action. Swartz led the league in both offensive categories with 22 goals and 50 points and was second only to Millersburg’s Kara Keim with nine assists.

Games can typically be won despite low scoring, especially as the competition gets tougher. Dressler though wants the offense to work on a few things offensively, none bigger than shooting the ball and playing a full 80 minutes without getting sluggish.