Young, resilient and fearless, the Bethlehem girls soccer team would not back down from the odds thrown at them, all the way through earning Section 2 and regional Class AA girls soccer championships.
Only when the Eagles got to the state semifinal round did it confront an obstacle it could not quite overcome.
Bethlehem fell 1-0 to Section 1 champion North Rockland in Saturday’s state Class AA semifinal at Tompkins-Cortland Community College — offering up plenty of resistance, but unable to generate many scoring chances.
“We knew we were going to have to play a lot of defense,” said Bethlehem head coach Tom Rogan. “We didn’t see a team like that (North Rockland) in our area this year.”
For the most part, the young Eagles held up well. Bethle-hem’s back-line quartet of Madison Ehring, Selin Gumustop, Andrea Saxe and Ellie Warner-Rousseau maintained their discipline in the face of constant pressure from the Raiders’ talented group of forwards and midfielders.
It helped North Rockland that it had gone through this before, reaching the state final in 2013 before a loss to Massapequa. And on a chilly morning with snow cleared off the Tompkins turf just before kickoff, it didn’t take too long for the game’s theme to emerge.
Over and over, North Rockland pushed and got near the net. Each time, the Bethlehem defenders were ready. So was goalie Miranda Manziano, who made nine saves and caused plenty of frustration for the Raiders by deftly handling the shots sent to her.
“She (Manziano) was unbelievable,” said Rogan. “She proved again why she’s the best keeper in our area.”
Only on occasion did the Eagles break North Rockland’s spell of possession, and its best chance came just past the midway point of the second half, in the 23rd minute. Ehring had a free kick from 25 yards out, but she sent it mere inches over the net.
Then Bethlehem went back to defense. “The game plan worked, to the degree that we wanted it to,” said Rogan. “Except for the goal they got.”
That goal was attained with less than four minutes left in the first half. From a corner kick hit by North Rockland’s Taylor Aylmer, the ball fell amid a scrum of Eagles and Raiders players until Amber Alfonzo poked it past Manziano into the right side of the net.
Throughout the second half, North Rockland attempted to add to its lead, and could not do so. But though it just needed one break to pull even, Bethlehem was constantly thwarted any time it tried to attack, as the Eagles were held to just three shots that Raiders goalie Jenna Brunagel scooped up.
So a magical run for the Eagles — that included rising from a No. 6 seed to beat the top three seeds in the sectional tournament and rallying from behind to beat Liverpool in overtime in the regional finals — came to an end.
However, with just two players (Warner-Rousseau and Kaylee Rickert) graduating and a wealth of young, talented and hungry players back for 2015, Bethlehem’s quest for a first-ever state championship might only be in its initial stages.
“When you look at the whole season, to get all the way here (to the state final four) is a fantastic run,” said Rogan.