---- — By Scott Dudinskie
The Daily Item
BERWICK -- Cathy Keiser had quite an unenviable task, one that not even three decades of experience could make any easier.
What do you say to a relatively young team that played as hard as Selinsgrove did Saturday, only to lose its state quarterfinal game on a short-handed goal with 2 seconds left in regulation?
The folks at Hallmark wouldn't want any part of it.
"I just told them they can't hang their heads because they played one heck of a game," Keiser said. "Their effort was there: very strong, very intense, very focused. No regrets."
The Seals had all but won their way to overtime -- and make no mistake, playing 60 scoreless minutes against Crestwood was a victory -- when the unthinkable happened.
Marissa Surdy's pass from just inside the top-right of the circle found freshman Elizabeth Dessoye on a dead sprint to the left post for the stunning 1-0 winner.
Just like that, Selinsgrove's worst-to-first season ended. The Seals overcame a Halley's Comet-rare three-game losing streak (which included a 1-0 loss to Crestwood) early in the season, and battled as the No. 5 seed to win their eighth consecutive District 4 title, earning the right to hope for more.
Instead, the District 2 champion Comets (21-2) will play District 3 runner-up Greenwood (20-3-1) in the Class AA semifinals Tuesday at a site and time to be determined. The Seals finished 16-5-2.
"It hurts a lot -- hurts a lot right now -- but I couldn't be more proud of my team," said Selinsgrove mid Jenna Kapsar, one of four seniors. "They gave it their all."
Neither Keiser nor Kapsar believed the Seals let down their guard in the waning seconds when overtime seemed a virtual certainty.
There was a quicker-than-anticipated restart when a ball knocked out of bounds near the Crestwood bench was stopped by a Comets assistant coach using her clipboard and readied for play. Iowa recruit Chandler Ackers played the ball in from the right side and pushed it ahead to Surdy, starting the game-winning sequence.
"It was a quick breakaway and we were all kind of recovering and back on our heels a bit," said Kapsar, "but I think our effort was there until the end."
"(The Comets) jumped on it because they knew it was their last-ditch effort," said Keiser. "They made something happen."
Even Elvetta Gemski, the only coach Crestwood's storied program has known and winner of 616 games, was stunned by the outcome.
"Coaches always say, 'Play right to the end,' and that's just a prime example of playing right to the end," she said. "You can never give up -- keep working -- and that's just what they did."
The Comets were ultra-aggressive from the start, to the point they would control, pivot and fire any ball in or near the circle. They continuously hit long, hard balls into the attacking end, but also made several dangerous runs at the cage, often with forward Mary Cronauer dribbling through the defense.
The Seals weren't on their heels so much as guarding against Crestwood breaking back, and that meant they weren't as free to attack or create chances.
"It was a quick game, quick transition, and we haven't seen that a lot this season," said Kapsar. "I think our offense played really well, but they had good defense so it was really hard to transition."
Selinsgrove weathered the barrage through to halftime with a couple defensive saves and three more from sophomore keeper Courtney McCartney. Early in the second half, it appeared the Seals may have rope-a-doped Crestwood with Keiser's frequent substitutions.
Like Muhammed Ali allowing George Foreman to punch himself out in their 1974 heavyweight title fight, Selinsgrove absorbed the Comets' best shots and then turned the tide by running fresh legs at them.
"We definitely did generate offense and we kept pounding away, but give credit to Selinsgrove's defense," said Gemski. "Very, very great defense right down to the goalkeeper."
The Seals had just two first-half corners but earned four in fewer than six minutes midway through the second half. Kapsar had a couple looks from the top, the best producing a pass to Nora Aucker on the right whose shot was just wide.
"We definitely have a lot of depth and that gave us momentum in the second half," said Kapsar. "We had a lot more energy than they did."
With 1:23 to play, Crestwood's Daniella Callaghan drew a yellow card, giving Selinsgrove a player advantage and the break it needed. Rather, the Comets stepped up their pressure to the final shot.
"There were only, like, two minutes left but I thought, This is our chance," said Kapsar. "Unfortunately, we weren't able to capitalize."
Selinsgrove's reserves froze in stunned silence at the goal, watching the Comets' celebration. As the Seals made their way off the field to form a handshake line, Keiser had already given a half-dozen hugs.
"We just have grown so much, and they know that," she said. "They're disappointed but I think they felt the success with learning that hard work and teamwork, bonding, really works.
"I think it's a good life lesson that they'll carry with them."