A breakaway opportunity for Rising Sun’s girls soccer team seemed inevitable.
The Tigers’ leading scorer, Annalia Webb, snuck behind Middletown’s defense, and she only had Knights goalie Kylie Wells in front of her. Out of nowhere, Middletown center back Meghan Shipley streaked into the picture, and Webb couldn’t even muster a shot on goal in last Saturday’s Class 2A state semifinals.
“I love that about Meghan,” fellow center back Keri Horine said after the Knights practiced on Wednesday in preparation for Saturday’s state championship game against Calvert. “She’s always there.”
Horine and Shipley team up with left back Katie Frushour and right back Brynn Gentile to form a Middletown back line that has allowed just 11 goals all year — an impressive feat considering this marks the first season the four have been on the field at the same time.
Shipley’s ability to deny Webb may have best illustrated why the Knights’ defense has been so strong despite not being together for a prolonged period.
“The biggest thing is that they’re all just really athletic, and they work hard,” Middletown coach Heather Kline said. “Sometimes, that’s just the combination you need.”
Frushour and Gentile, along with back line subs Jenna Grossnickle and Jillian Grubb, play on the same club team, FCSC Titanium, along with Knights leading scorer Bella Gusman. However, Horine plays her club soccer at FC Frederick while Gentile and Shipley haven’t played high school varsity soccer until this season.
But that same speed Shipley displayed against Rising Sun exists across the Knights’ entire back line, and it becomes essential when trying to defend opposing strikers who are just as fast — if not faster.
Frushour and Gentile try to use their athleticism by pushing forward from their outside back positions and joining in on the Knights’ attack. And if an opponent strikes with a counterattack, they can use their athleticism to recover and defend.
“I like using my speed going down the line and then crossing it [to a teammate],” Gentile said.
Shipley takes on a big role on defense for the Knights’ basketball team, and over the summer, she targeted speed and strength as areas of improvement for both soccer and basketball. So she dove into a plyometrics training program, which includes series of jumps designed to enhance explosive movement.
“I think the biggest thing for Meg is getting in as good a shape as she could get in — to get as fast as she could to build her endurance,” Kline said. “On our sprints [during training], she’s always in the front. She’s always pushing. Her speed and endurance is a wonderful thing to have in a defender.”
While speed may stand out in the eyes of spectators, Frushour stresses the importance of physicality on the back line, saying that she and Gentile take a strength training class to prepare for the contact they expect.
“As defenders, you can’t let people push you around, and you have to be aggressive,” said Frushour, the lone three-year varsity player on the back line.
Frushour and others on the back line pointed out the strong relationships they have off the field as helping enhance the cohesion of that group — and that of the whole team.
“There’s no separate groups,” said Horine, who has committed to play soccer at Frostburg State. “We’re all just one big family.”
Versatility and a lack of ego also helps that cohesion, with players more than willing to play different positions when asked to do so.
At Middletown, Horine is playing center back for the first time, while Gentile has played three different positions for her club team.
Kline recalled approaching Grossnickle about a position change, and the junior cut her off before Kline could even finish making her request, saying, “Coach, you can play me anywhere.”
“That’s one of the things about this group, they just really want to win, so on game day, they’re just giving everything they have,” Kline said. “They’re working for each other.”
Class 2A Girls Soccer State Final
Calvert (14-3-1) vs. Middletown (16-2)
- When: 5 p.m. Saturday
- Where: Ridley Athletic Complex, Loyola University
- Road to final: Middletown truly earned all of its postseason victories, winning each of its four games by one goal. Thanks to an excellent back line of Katie Frushour, Meghan Shipley, Keri Horine and Brynn Gentile and two strong goalies in Maggie Perkins and Kylie Wells, the Knights’ defense has posted three shutouts in the playoffs and nine overall. Calvert hasn’t been tested nearly as much, steamrolling its first three opponents by a combined score of 30-0. However, the Cavaliers didn’t succumb to the pressure of playing in hard-fought contest against previously undefeated Century in the state semifinals, getting a goal from star striker London Lewis in overtime to beat Carroll County’s Knights 1-0.
- Key players: Middletown—Bella Gusman, Sr., forward (9 goals, 4 assists); Millie Smith, Jr., midfielder (7 goals, 5 assists); Ali Robinson, Sr., forward (7 goals, 2 assists). Calvert—London Lewis, Sr., forward (24 goals, 10 assists); Serenity Thomas, Fr., forward (13 goals, 8 assists); Mackenzie Alonso, Jr., midfielder (11 goals, 8 assists).
- Outlook: Making their first state final since winning the last of their three consecutive state titles in 2012, the Knights have flourished in close games, going 9-2 in contests decided by a goal. But they’ll face their toughest challenge yet in high-powered Calvert, which won a state title in 2014 and then made back-to-back state semifinal appearances in 2015 and 2016. Middletown’s defenders must dig in yet again and keep the ultra-talented Lewis under wraps to stay in contention with a Cavaliers team that scored an eye-popping 84 goals this season.
- Quotable: “They have a striker [in Lewis] that’s really good. She’s good with the ball at her feet, she’s fast, she can receive a ball from over top, she can receive the ball to her feet and turn. But I do think they also have really technical players throughout the field. A lot of it’s just going to be the things that we’ve kept doing, which is not panic, play hard, play together, talk a lot. But I think Calvert is going to be a very difficult team to play, and we’re going in knowing that.” — Middletown coach Heather Kline