With the season on the line during the Thursday, Oct. 19 Philadelphia Catholic League girls’ soccer quarterfinal, the scoreless game clearly appeared destined to be decided by penalty kicks. Just a final few ticks of the clock remained, and coaches needed to start strategizing which five players would shoot one-on-one against the opponent goalie since two overtime periods had seemingly failed to produce a winner.

Then Devon Cheeseman experienced the signature moment of her scholastic career.

With time running toward zero, Cheeseman watched junior teammate Abby Rock take a last-ditch attempt on goal, which ricocheted to Cheeseman. Using her instincts, the senior then pounced on the rebound with less than four seconds remaining, and her perfectly placed retort found the back of the net.

In Nazareth Academy’s first season in the Philadelphia Catholic League, the visiting five-seed Pandas had defeated four-seed Cardinal O’Hara, 1-0, and advanced to face two-seed Archbishop Ryan in the PCL semifinals tomorrow Oct. 24 at Gwynedd Mercy University.

“The goalie from Cardinal O’Hara . . . man, is she good,” said Dan Bradley, referring to senior Ava Hneleski. “She played a great game. The ball went off her gloves, and Devon was able to put it in the net.”

According to Bradley, Nazareth’s head coach for the past 12 years who had served as the school’s athletic director for 11 years before resigning in July, Nazareth Academy has wanted to participate in the PCL for many years. Joining one of Pennsylvania’s most-respected leagues, however, requires a host of administrative gymnastics.

When Nazareth was formally accepted last year with the starting date slated for the 2023-24 school year, most coaches and players immediately expressed unmitigated enthusiasm, though last year’s graduates left disappointed that they would not be a part of the school’s new direction.

Which made the Pandas’ first-ever PCL playoff success that much more triumphant.

“It’s been preached to them all season long – we’re the new kids on the block,” Bradley said. “No one ever wants to lose to the new kids. We knew we would take our lumps, because it’s part of the experience. But we all wanted to be a part of the Catholic League, and being part of this history . . . it’s been phenomenal.”

Before the game, Bradley had reminded the Pandas to remain disciplined. O’Hara, which like Nazareth finished the regular season with a record of 5-3-1, is known for its staunch defense and rarely makes mistakes. During the regular season, the Lions allowed a miserly five goals – the fewest in the PCL – and never lost by more than one tally. All of their four defeats – including the playoff loss to Nazareth – were by identical scores of 1-0.

Though more open to an offensive game, Nazareth also didn’t lose by more than one goal. After a 3-2 loss to Ryan in their first-ever PCL game, the Pandas beat Lansdale Catholic, 1-0, before dropping a 2-1 decision at Archbishop Wood, which ultimately finished in first place. They then won three straight, lost 2-1 at Archbishop Carroll, defeated Conwell-Egan, and fought O’Hara to a scoreless deadlock in their regular-season finale.

Aided by the performance and leadership of junior outside backs Erin Jackson and Cait Wnek, the Pandas maintained possession throughout most of regulation, though not enough to penetrate the scoreboard. At the end of regulation, some external bickering ensued. Frustration will do that, especially against a team like Cardinal O’Hara, which often makes it near impossible to establish any kind of an offensive rhythm.

But the Pandas handled it among themselves and prepared for a do-or-die extra session . . . and then another.

“We’re a family on this team,” Bradley said. “I know that sounds cliché-ish and corny, but that’s the truth. They have each other’s backs.”

They also have their first Philadelphia Catholic League playoff win.

Quite an accomplishment for the new kids on the block.


Contact John Knebels at jknebels@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnknebels