Northeast Times

Twin effort

When Steve Smeck (right) went down with a sea­son-end­ing knee in­jury, twin broth­er Andy and a host of oth­er Judge play­ers have stepped up. ABI RE­IMOLD / FOR THE TIMES

— With twin broth­er Steve in­jured, Andy Smeck has stepped up for Fath­er Judge soc­cer. He’s not the only one.

Start­Frag­ment

Through 75 minutes at George Todt Field on Fri­day night, the score between the Fath­er Judge and Arch­bish­op Ry­an soc­cer teams re­mained knot­ted at zero.

With the game the Cru­saders had to have to keep pace in the cut­throat Cath­ol­ic League stand­ings hanging in the bal­ance, Andy Smeck knew he had to make a big play. With his biggest fan im­mob­il­ized by a ser­i­ous knee in­jury on the Judge side­line, Smeck did just that.

Smeck’s pristine cross in­to the Ry­an goal box found the head of re­serve back TJ Ma­ciocha, who de­flec­ted the ball past Raid­ers goalie Jared Ott for the game’s only goal with un­der five minutes to play. The vic­tory gave the Cru­saders a crit­ic­al 1-0 road win in front of a packed house on Ry­an’s cam­pus.

Roughly 25 yards away on the near side­line, Smeck’s twin broth­er, Steve, could only smile. The Judge co-cap­tain — and one of the Cath­ol­ic League’s bet­ter play­ers — tore the an­teri­or cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment in his knee in train­ing camp and end­ing his much-an­ti­cip­ated seni­or sea­son be­fore it star­ted. To make mat­ters worse for Judge, the team’s oth­er cap­tain and best play­er, Justin Hiltwine, also blew out his knee right around the same time. Sud­denly, a team that had such high hopes head­ing in­to the sea­son saw things slip­ping away be­fore the sea­son’s first game.

But as tends to be the case in sports, oth­er play­ers seized the op­por­tun­ity to step up and in­her­it big­ger, more im­port­ant roles. Now, with Fri­day’s win un­der their belts, the Cru­saders have turned their ini­tial self-doubt in­to un­ques­tioned con­fid­ence, a dan­ger­ous sign go­ing for­ward for op­pon­ents.

“We did get down, but we didn’t quit on each oth­er,” Andy Smeck said. “We may have dropped our heads, but Steve and Justin didn’t quit on us, and that boos­ted us up. Now, we want to win it for them.”

“Man, I want to be out there,” Steve Smeck said. “It’s crush­ing me. But I knew with Justin and me out, guys would step up and take my spot. They do a hell of a job. Andy, TJ and I are team­mates on our club team too, so for them to make things hap­pen and win a game like this is awe­some.”

When time ran out and the Cru­saders could fi­nally breathe, a massive cel­eb­rat­ory pileup oc­curred near mid­field. Not want­ing to feel left out, Steve Smeck lugged his sur­gic­ally re­paired knee over to the rev­elry and jumped right in. With his sea­son lost, he must live vi­cari­ously through Andy and team­mates like Mo­hamed Conde (a team-lead­ing six goals), Ry­an Nork, Joey Hansen, Kev­in Lock­hart (four goals), Fran­cis Gresko, goalie Dylan Trush and the team’s oth­er set of twins, Von­tez & Vontae Hil­liard, all of whom have stepped up in Hiltwine and Steve Smeck’s ab­sence.

“Right after I found out I was out for the sea­son, I walked up to Andy and told him, ‘I’m out, and I need you to step it up for me,’” Steve re­called. “I broke down and I cried a little bit, and I told him how much this meant to me. He knew right away, and he just gave me a hug and said, ‘I got you.’ He said he was go­ing to do it for me, and I be­lieve him.”

Ad­ded Andy: “He’s the heart of our team. In the huddle be­fore the game we al­ways talk about who we’re play­ing for, and Dylan Trush said be­fore this one that we were play­ing for Justin and Steve. We just nod­ded. We knew the deal. There’s 11 healthy guys out there, and if we push hard enough and want it enough, then we can be cham­pi­ons.”

The tri­umph pushed the Cru­saders in­to a four-way tie atop the stand­ings, join­ing Ry­an, La Salle and St. Joseph’s Prep at 6-1 (Judge was sched­uled to play the Prep and Ry­an was due to play Con­well-Egan on Tues­day af­ter­noon, after the Times had gone to press). For Judge, this was as hard earned a vic­tory as can be, as in­con­sist­ent of­fi­ci­at­ing led to plenty of shov­ing on the field for the long­time rivals.

After com­ing so close to beat­ing La Salle in the cham­pi­on­ship game a year ago, this is where Judge ex­pec­ted to be in 2012; they just had no idea it would hap­pen without their two most tal­en­ted play­ers.

And per­haps the most fit­ting sym­bol for this un­pre­dict­able Judge roller coast­er of a sea­son was that it was a re­serve who came off the bench to score the game-win­ner. Ma­ciocha, who re­cently re­turned from ankle sur­gery, picked a per­fect time for his first varsity goal. In ad­di­tion to Ma­ciocha, Gresko (also a re­serve) has tal­lied five goals; Andy Smeck, ori­gin­ally a sup­port­ing mem­ber who has stepped up as an as­sert­ive team lead­er on the field, has six as­sists, ac­cord­ing to head coach John Dun­lop. As a team, Judge’s 32 goals have been spread out to 14 dif­fer­ent play­ers, in­dic­at­ing strong bal­ance and depth.

“We’re start­ing to see our hard work pay off as guys get more com­fort­able in their new roles,” Dun­lop said. “We wer­en’t mesh­ing to­geth­er at first, but I al­ways be­lieved we were a good team. Now, guys are pulling their weight and the train is mov­ing for­ward in time for a play­off run.”

So far, the ex­per­i­ence has been a mem­or­able one for the Smeck broth­ers. Nat­ives of Feasterville, the twins said they’ve been kick­ing a soc­cer ball back and forth since they were three years old. While Steve’s stock rose in­to one of the bet­ter de­fend­ers in the league, Andy re­mained close by his broth­er’s side, soak­ing up soc­cer wis­dom like a sponge.

“He’s my mo­tiv­a­tion. I win for him,” Andy said of Steve. “If not for him be­ing the heart of this team, I wouldn’t be the play­er I am today. He knows he’s still my cap­tain, and he keeps push­ing me for­ward.”

“We’ve been through our ups and downs, no ques­tion,” Steve ad­ded. “They all have faith and trust in each oth­er, and I trust them and our coaches. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll get to the cham­pi­on­ship and win it.”

Dun­lop has likened Steve Smeck’s and Hiltwine’s ab­sences to that of the Phil­lies los­ing top slug­gers Ry­an Howard and Chase Ut­ley for a good chunk of the 2012 sea­son. When the re­main­ing play­ers stop put­ting so much pres­sure on them­selves and just play the role the team needs them to, suc­cess is bound to fol­low. This real­iz­a­tion came too late for the Phil­lies, but the Cru­saders are peak­ing at just the right time.

“These guys know ex­actly what’s at stake and what to do,” Steve said. “And they’re go­ing to prove it.”

Andy Smeck, his white un­der­shirt still stained with sweat and grass from the post­game cel­eb­ra­tion, smiled proudly with his twin broth­er by his side. There’s still a lot of work left to do, but for now, the Smeck broth­ers just wanted to en­joy the mo­ment.

“When that ball went in, I didn’t know what to think, so I just ran around scream­ing,” Andy said with a laugh. “I was way too ex­cited. Beat­ing Ry­an, it’s the best feel­ing in the world. I think after we scored, we kind of just looked around and said, ‘All right, this could be the start of a cham­pi­on­ship run. Let’s keep it up and push for­ward.” ••

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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