Judge’s magical run falls just short of a title


Last Thursday night, the Fath­er Judge soc­cer team got an un­for­tu­nate re­mind­er of how cruel sports can be. For as much as ath­let­ics have the abil­ity to lift teams to un­think­able levels of ex­ulta­tion, they can just as quickly cut you off at the knees right be­fore the fin­ish line.

For this Cru­saders team, the 3-0 de­feat to reign­ing cham­pi­on La Salle in Thursday’s Cath­ol­ic League title game was an es­pe­cially tough pill to swal­low. After los­ing seni­or cap­tains Steve Smeck and Justin Hiltwine to identic­al sea­son-end­ing knee in­jur­ies in pre­season prac­tice, nobody thought Judge could get to this point, es­pe­cially not in what is ar­gu­ably the most cut­throat boys’ soc­cer league in all of Pennsylvania.

However, they per­severed, over­com­ing obstacle upon obstacle to some­how make it all the way to the fi­nal game. Roles were shif­ted. Sys­tems were mod­i­fied. Re­serves un­ex­pec­tedly be­came starters. And still, here they were, 80 minutes away from an im­prob­able cham­pi­on­ship.

In­stead, La Salle struck first and nev­er looked back, tak­ing a 1-0 lead in­to half­time and suck­ing the life out of Judge with an early second-half tally. By the time the Ex­plorers pumped in a third goal late in the second half, the writ­ing was on the wall, and when the fi­nal whistle blew, ex­pres­sions of pregame hope had shif­ted in­to pain­ful agony.

Seni­or Kev­in Lock­hart, who had been so good as a lead­er in Smeck and Hiltwine’s ab­sence, covered his face with his jer­sey for sev­er­al minutes to hide his tears. Andy Smeck, Steve’s twin broth­er, who be­came an in­teg­ral part of the team after his broth­er went down, col­lapsed on the grass on the field at Arch­bish­op Ry­an. When he stood up, he again col­lapsed, this time in­to the arms of his broth­er, both of their faces red with sad­ness.

It wasn’t the res­ult they had hoped for, but they still de­served all the cred­it in the world, ac­cord­ing to their head coach.

“Los­ing the guys we lost, a lot of people didn’t give the re­spect that the tal­ent here de­served,” John Dun­lop said. “It’s a cred­it to all of them to get to this point. They stayed to­geth­er all sea­son with so many things to over­come, which makes it even tough­er that it had to end here.”

Com­mon know­ledge states that there are no mor­al vic­tor­ies in sports, just like there’s no sil­ver lin­ing after a cham­pi­on­ship loss. But this Judge team has to know there is something to be said about be­ing one of the last teams stand­ing in such a bru­tally tough league.

“They made it tough on us all night, we just took ad­vant­age of the chances they gave us,” said win­ning coach Bob Peffle, a 1965 gradu­ate of Frank­ford High School and nat­ive of Lawndale. “They have a fant­ast­ic team, and Johnny Dun­lop is a great coach. I’ve been in el­ev­en cham­pi­on­ships, and lost four of them, so I’ve been on the oth­er end of things. In this league, it’s the nature of the beast. Un­for­tu­nately, some­times you ex­per­i­ence both sides of it.”

High school ath­let­ics are cyc­lic­al, and Judge will lose a lot to gradu­ation, but it’s something this team is ac­cus­tomed to after los­ing Hiltwine and Steve Smeck to in­jury. In ad­di­tion to those two, key seni­ors Andy Smeck, Lock­hart, Fran­cis Gresko, twins Von­tez and Vontae Hil­liard and Matt Matwiejczyk will all move onto the next stage of their lives.

It’s a lot to lose, but the Cru­saders will also bring back a bunch of play­ers who were thrown in­to the fire this sea­son and forced to grow up quickly, a chal­lenge they ac­cep­ted head on. Top scor­ing threat Mo­hamed Conde, mid­field­ers Joey Hansen, Aaron Pavlow and Ry­an Nork, back Joey Malves­tuto, goalie Danny Sulp­iz­io and key re­serve TJ Ma­ciocha will all be back, among oth­ers.

So the sky isn’t ex­actly fall­ing on the Fath­er Judge soc­cer team, even if it felt that way in the mo­ments fol­low­ing the loss to La Salle.

“They don’t un­der­stand that part of it, real­iz­ing what they ac­com­plished, be­cause they lost to­night,” Dun­lop said. “That’s part of grow­ing up. But as an adult who’s been around the game a long time, I can see how big of an ac­com­plish­ment this en­tire sea­son was. These guys had to ad­just and buy in­to it, and they did. I think we used a dif­fer­ent lineup in every game. We just ran in­to a little bit of a bet­ter team to­night, but I’m proud of them.

“Give them a day or two, and they’ll be smil­ing again. They’ll be proud of them­selves at what they ac­com­plished for their com­munity.”

And while Dun­lop is sad to see a lot of his seni­ors go, he was bey­ond ap­pre­ci­at­ive to what they’ve giv­en to the soc­cer pro­gram, the school and the com­munity in their time with the team.

“The kids who are leav­ing, the years they gave us were tre­mend­ous,” he said. “We built re­la­tion­ships, and I have no doubt they’ll be back to check in on us. As for the guys who are re­turn­ing, they’ve grown up a lot and we do have a good found­a­tion and some lead­ers in there.

“More guys will get op­por­tun­it­ies, and they’ll all be out there next year to form an­oth­er thick core. We’re already talk­ing about next sea­son.” ••

Sports ed­it­or Ed Mor­rone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or em­or­rone@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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