Pa. teams go the distance for playoffs

A small group of students made the trip to cheer on Villa Joseph Marie in the state semifinals. Sheldon Shealer/ESPNHS

It was 7:35 a.m. Wednesday morning and members of the Central Valley (Monaca, Pa.) girls’ soccer team trickled into class – they were visibly tired.

The night before, Central Valley was humbled 5-1 in a Pennsylvania Class AA state semifinal match. It wasn’t the margin of defeat that was the story. After all, longshot Central Valley lost to a Villa Joseph Marie (Holland, Pa.) team generally regarded as one of the strongest in the nation.

The story here was travel.

Central Valley and Villa Joseph Marie each ventured nearly three and a half hours one way on charter buses on a rainy school night to play an 80-minute soccer match in front of a crowd fewer than 100 spectators in the 7,000-seat Chambersburg (Chambersburg, Pa.) stadium. For Central Valley, located northwest of Pittsburgh, near the Ohio state line, it was the team’s third-straight round trip of more than 250 miles – an estimated 18 hours of bus rides – during an eight-day stretch. Villa Joseph Marie, located northeast of Philadelphia, was playing in a city that the team’s head coach had never heard of and needed an online search to find.

“When I first heard where the game was I went on (the computer) and got the distance and I’m thinking we’re getting [robbed],” Villa Joseph Marie coach Rich Finneyfrock said. “Then I checked it out, and (Central Valley) had a 10-minute longer ride than we did.”

Generally such match-ups are reserved for the state final, when the Eastern and Western champions meet in the central Pennsylvania city of Hershey. However, an imbalance of western playoff representatives, coupled with a few postseason surprises, left these two schools that are a six-hour car ride apart playing Tuesday night in south central Pennsylvania for the what some consider the eastern final. Meanwhile, the western championship was taking place that evening less than 30 miles from Central Valley’s school.

“When we lost in our (district) semifinals*, we knew we’d be in the eastern bracket and have to travel,” Central Valley coach Mark Perry said. “I’d rather do this than not get into the state playoffs.”

Players from both programs seemed to take the travel in stride.

“It was a long ride, but we watched a movie, we were singing and having a good time,” Villa Joseph Marie senior Erica Petrone said. “Once we got to the stadium, we put down the windows and starting cheering just to get that energy going.”

“It was an exciting experience, much different than we’re used to,” Central Valley senior Melissa Huff said of the travel.

“It’s like a college-team atmosphere because we’re traveling three-four hours to play one soccer game,” Perry said. “It’s a bit exciting for the first game, but by the second and third games it gets a little old.”

Perry added that this final trip took a toll on the team. Petrone scored less than two minutes into the match for Villa Joseph Marie and Central Valley never recovered, falling behind 3-0 en route to the season-ending loss.

Following the contest, teary-eyed Central Valley players boarded the bus for their three-and-a-half-hour return trip, which Huff was expecting to be a long, silent ride home. Instead, the distance became therapeutic.

“After a while we thought about how far we had made it,” she said. “And that was a good experience.”