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BY CHRIS GEORGE

MIDDLEBURG – Elco girls’ head soccer coach Derek Fulk was concerned about the almost two-hour bus ride that his team had to make up to Mid-West High School in Middleburg. Such is life during the PIAA playoffs.

The District Three runner-up Raiders, who fell to Mechanicsburg in the final last week in dramatic fashion on PKs, were forced to make the trek into the home territory of Mifflinburg, which beat Selinsgrove last week to win the District Four title.  The Wildcats were bolstered by a strong fan turnout from only 20 minutes down the road, although ELCO was well represented with many parents and fans making the voyage up from Myerstown.

The winner would move on to face Villa-Maria Joseph or Archbishop Ryan in the state quarterfinals. And when the dust had settled, it was Mifflinburg which emerged victorious, with a 2-1 triumph over the Raiders.

The Raider coaching staff knew it would be a tall order taking down the 17-1 District 4 champs. Coach Fulk said they knew ”they were good. It’s hard to gauge sometimes with no common opponent, but we saw them on film and could tell they were very skilled and physical. We had a great week of prep, gave the girls off a couple days after the title game, and we got right back to work.”

Getting off to a fast start would be key, unfortunately Coach Fulk said the long bus ride may have affected the squad early on. In the first half, the Wildcats from Mifflinburg had several chances to open the scoring.

The steadfast defense of the Raiders, which had been a strong point all year long, was able to hold stout though, with junior keeper Sam Nelson snatching away several Wildcat opportunities.  The Raiders weren’t able to muster many solid chances in the first half outside of a free kick and a lone corner, but heading into halftime tied  at zero, the message was simple from the Raider staff.  “Tighten things up, start playing with more energy, and come out hard.”

The Raiders did start the second half with energy and controlled the first few minutes and looked quicker to most balls.

However, on a loose ball, which may have been a bit of a lucky turf bounce that skipped over Nelson‘s head, a Mifflinburg striker gave it a little tap with her shoulder and knocked it into the goal with an Elco defender hanging on her back. “That’s just how things go sometimes,” said Fulk, discussing the lucky bounce. 

The goal put the Raiders on their heels and allowed the Wildcats to quickly regain the momentum, and seven minutes later they found the back of the net once again to make it to 2-0 with 28 minutes to play. As Elco looked to be in huge hole at this point, Fulk said, “once you get down two goals in a game like that, you kinda feel like it’s going to be tough. But we immediately fought back hard.” 

And just like that, Elco’s senior-led bunch, which all year overcame obstacles and injuries to key players, used that intestinal fortitude, and answered the bell within less than a minute. On a free kick, at the 27-minute mark, Abigail Sargent was able to knock it in off a cross from outside the 18 near the sideline.  

The goal set the stage for the final 27 minutes of a very exciting back-and-forth contest.  Mifflinburg got several good looks, while Elco made several crosses and runs late as well. The game also got much more physical, with several calls, and fans on both sides doing everything they could to urge their girls on. Mifflinburg was just trying to hang on and Elco pushing for that elusive game tying goal.

Unfortunately for the Raiders, after a shot from Sargent was stopped by the Mifflinburg keeper, and a last-ditch cross by Kailey Eckhart that skimmed across the goal, but could not find a foot, the game would eventually end in emotional fashion.

Afterwards, Coach Fulk mentioned that he has great expectations for next year, with many outstanding players returning, including some injured ones who missed out on the playoff push. Much of his talk, however, centered on his six seniors and how much they meant to the program, one of whom, Emma Fox, was hurt and missed the run through leagues, districts, and states. 

The other seniors, Campbelle Boltz, Emily K. Miller, Eckhart, Melissa Axarlis, and Sargent, many of whom will be looking to play at the next level whether in soccer or other sports, are going to be dearly missed. Fulk was also a little emotional in mentioning how much they’ve meant to the program.  

But for now, the Raiders can rest on what Fulk called “a very successful season, winning a section title, finishing 16-5, making leagues, winning a district championship, and getting back to the state tournament after a couple of years.” Those things should go a long way towards cementing Elco girls’ soccer’s status as one of the preeminent programs in the state.

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