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 firstname.lastname@example.org