PITTSBURGH - A coach never knows how a team will deal with the effects of a long bus trip. But when time ticked down on a rainy and windy - but warm - night at North Allegheny High's Newman Stadium, Mifflin County's Tish Maclay was pleased with her team's effort in a 1-0 victory over the host Tigers on Thursday night.
The win puts the 9-10-1 Huskies into the PIAA tournament against the winner of Saturday's District 3 Class AAA fifth-place game between Twin Valley and Hempfield. The PIAA first-round playoff game will be played on Tuesday at Memorial Field in State College.
District 7 champion North Allegheny finished the year at 15-5-1. All five of the Tigers' losses came against out-of-district opposition.
Mifflin County junior forward Sara Neff tipped in a pass from junior midfielder Kezia Loht for the game's only goal with 13:08 left in the first half.
The lead stood up despite several furious offensive rallies by North Allegheny in the second half, the last coming with just seconds left in the game.
"Our girls came ready to play, and we played a great first half," Maclay said. "In the second half, we seemed to be back on our heels a little bit, but we made some adjustments."
Neff's goal rewarded a solid offensive effort that saw the Huskies in the Tigers' end of the field for most of the first half.
Neff's goal actually was the result of two solid passes from Hannah Kerstetter and Loht.
"Hannah got the ball to Kezia, who hit the ball to the right post, and I tapped it in," Neff said.
For North Allegheny coach Maddy Berkley, whose team won its district championship with a 2-1 victory over Fox Chapel two nights earlier on the same field, there were many 'what-ifs' that she hopes to address.
"We wanted it more a little too late," Berkley said. "We should have had (that drive) in the first half. We didn't come out as strong as I'd like to in the first half, but we battled back hard and took it down to the last two seconds. I don't know how many shots we had on the cage, but it was a lot."
Maclay said she and her team knew that North Allegheny made the most of its penalty corners for most of the season, and that was a big reason for the Huskies' success: the Tigers didn't get their first penalty corner until the second half and finished the game with two.
"We knew coming in they got most of their goals off (penalty) corners," she said. "That was part of our game plan. We had to limit their corner possession. I think our girls stepped up and did a great job."
Conversely, Neff's goal was a direct result of the Huskies' second penalty corner of the first half.
"We scored that goal off a corner," she said. "We have been working a lot on our corners, and we talk a lot about what the other team is giving us and the adjustments we need to make. I think our girls have been able (to adjust). We got a fair amount of players into the game tonight and found combinations that were able to work for us. Our passing game was pretty effective tonight."
Maclay said that when North Allegheny began to press the level of play and move the ball into Mifflin County's end, the Huskies made an adjustment in their alignment.
"We changed our formation from a 3-2-2-3 to a 3-4-3," she said, explaining that the four-player midfield clogged up North Allegheny's passing lanes.
"That seemed to slow their attack down a little bit, and we were able to maintain better possession of the ball," she said. "We made some nice defensive plays at the end to keep the ball out of the circle."
Maclay was pleased with the game's tone.
"The officiating was very fair," she said. "They let both teams play instead of blowing the whistle. They had a lot of held whistles which was nice to see. It's good for this program to get back to the state tournament. It's tough to make a 3 1/2 hour bus trip, but our girls responded to it.
Maclay said she doesn't know much about either Hempfield or Twin Valley, but she is certain of the quality of play in that area.
"District 3 is an incredibly tough district," she said. "Even though it's the fifth-place team, there should be no misconceptions about (a team's ability from District 3). There will be a quality team, whoever we play."