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