WESTERN SPRINGS – Katie O’Malley was the reason Lyons clung to a one-goal lead against Loyola on Wednesday night.
The senior forward had been the only player able to get one past star goalkeeper and returning Chicagoland Soccer All-Stater Ellie Bradley, who made three tremendous saves in the early going.
O’Malley broke through with 2:57 left in the first half, when she took a cross from sophomore All-Stater Caroline Mortonson and blasted a shot past Bradley.
After that, nothing.
“We came out ready to play,” Bradley said. “We knew this was going to be a big game for us, an exciting game for us.
“We love playing against good talent, so coming in today, I knew we had to be focused and on our game. So, I just made sure I was ready to go. I knew I would have to step up, and I guess I did.”
Bradley did exactly that. But Lyons took a step higher in an unusual scenario: O’Malley was dismissed with 21:16 left in the second half after picking up her second yellow card of the match.
Instead of packing it in defensively to protect their slim lead while playing one down, the Lions went on the attack. Junior Josie Pochocki and senior Niamh Griffin both scored shorthanded goals and the hosts went on to beat the Ramblers 3-0 at Bennett Field to clinch Group C of the Lou Malnati’s Deep Dish Classic.
The Lions (8-0-0), who are ranked third in the Chicagoland Soccer Top 25 poll, earned the right to play in a semifinal Thursday at no. 5 New Trier at 7 p.m.
No. 7 Evanston opens the dandy doubleheader vs. 23rd-ranked wild card team Stevenson at 5 p.m.
Shorthanded goals are rare in soccer. Lyons coach Bill Lanspeary said he had never seen a team score two in one game, let alone in a span of five minutes.
The fact the Lions did it without their leading scorer is even more amazing.
“That’s crazy to respond like that,” Lanspeary said. “Everybody else responded big time.
“When you go down a player, you have to adjust a little bit. But I thought our backs did a great job and our midfield worked unbelievably hard, because (the Ramblers) were really good.
“They made us work for everything.”
But no one has been good enough to get past the Lions or score on them. The no. 25 Ramblers mustered only one shot with the power play and four overall.
“We were obviously pressing forward, trying to get the tying goal,” Loyola coach Shannon Hartinger said. “So, we were throwing numbers forward, and I think they found some openings and were able to score two more goals.”
Pochocki, the Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match, and junior Izzy Wirtz were the linchpins in a midfield that rarely allowed the Ramblers to find any rhythm. That forced Loyola to continue to play with four defenders.
“Once Katie was out of the game, I think all of us knew we had to step up,” Pochocki said.
“Defensively, we did really good at locking down, and offensively we knew the second goal would make the difference.”
That tally came with 10:49 remaining off another nice assist from Mortonson, who was dangerous on the left wing throughout the match. This time her cross found Pochocki in the middle of the box for a smart finish.
“Caroline did a really good job of dribbling up to the top and playing me a good ball there,” Pochocki said. “I just had to hit it into the far corner.”
That gave the Lions some much-needed – and well-deserved – breathing room.
“I felt a little bit more relaxed,” Pochocki said. “But I knew we still had to keep up the energy.”
So did Griffin, whose mindset didn’t change.
“(The key was) just keeping our foot on the gas and keeping our offensive pressure,” Griffin said. “We didn’t want to sit back and totally allow the defense to control it. We wanted to keep pushing.”
The Lions did.
After the first shorthanded strike of Pochocki’s career, and Griffin matched her with 5:57 left in the game when she buried a rebound past Bradley, who had made a point-blank kick save on Zibby Michaelson.
That was Griffin’s fifth goal of the season, tying her with O’Malley for the team lead.
“It deflected off the goalie, and I just had an open net,” Griffin said. “I had to finish it.”
That finished off the Ramblers (4-3-3), but everyone agreed the game was anything but a rout.
“They had some skilled players up-top, and they made plays when they needed to make plays for their team,” Bradley said. “But it was even, and I think we could have had just as many goals as they did.
“They earned their goals, that’s for sure. But I definitely think the score does not reflect the way the game was played, and I don’t think it reflects the level of talent we have.
“I think that we played a helluva of a game. I wish the score reflected our performance.”
Lanspeary was impressed with the skill displayed from both sides.
“This was a tough battle,” Lanspeary said. “I know the score was 3-0, but that was a tight game. It was a fun, intense game.”
That’s why the Lions and Ramblers play in the tournament. While Lyons has begun the season on a roll, Lanspeary said before the game that the level of competition was about to ramp up, and he was right.
“We try to put a tough schedule together, and we test ourselves,” Lanspeary said. “This tournament is a big test.
“All these teams are good, and the kids are stepping up. They are really rising to the occasion. It is fun to see.”
Despite the loss, Hartinger said the game was part of a process for Loyola.
“We put ourselves in a position where we play tough competition all year,” Hartinger said. “We’ve had no easy games this year, and I think for us that’s part of our plan.
“We’ve got a younger team, so I think giving them the experience of playing at this level is important. We want to play the best so we can continue to get the best out of ourselves.
“I think we had a great performance for parts of tonight. There were a few breakdowns that we’ll have to clean up, but overall, this is why we play tough competition – so that we can get better.”
Bradley is confident the Ramblers will do so.
“We’re only getting better, and I think games like these are just tests for us,” Bradley said. “We’re coming out better and better each time we have to play a hard, challenging team.
“These are just preparing us for going into the conference games.”
GK: Ellie Bradley
D: Sadie Merriott
D: Ellianna Seeley
D: Emily Pikarski
D: Maria Nikas
M: Grace Lynch
M: Emma Shaffer
M: Mimi Fritzsche
F: Tess O’Bryan
F: Emily Plovanich
F: Ellie Vehovsky
GK: Nora Ezike
D: Jillian Herchenroether
D: Chandler Lay
D: Caroline McKenna
D: Brennan Israel
M: Josie Pochocki
M: Izzy Wirtz
M: Carolina Capizzi
F: Niamh Griffin
F: Caroline Mortonson
F: Katie O’Malley
Chicagoland Soccer MVP of the Match: Josie Pochocki, jr., MF, Lyons
Lyons: Katie O’Malley (Caroline Mortonson) 2:57 remaining
Lyons: Josie Pochocki (Mortonson) (sh) 10:49 remaining
Lyons: Niamh Griffin (sh) 5:57 remaining