The spirit of St. Louis

100610_Pennsbury_400
The Pennsbury boys' soccer team was nationally ranked at the beginning of the season.

Sawyer Waters' game-winner late in the second half against Greensboro Day School (N.C.) on Friday night in St. Louis did more than seal a 2-1, come-from-behind exhibition win for Pennsbury.

The goal might have woken up a sleeping giant.

Pennsbury spent the weekend in St. Louis for the annual Gateway City Classic, an invitational showcase of some of the best high school soccer teams in the country.

The Falcons walked away with one-goal wins against two nationally known and highly talented teams.

But the effect of the trip was more than just the satisfaction that comes with two wins and a weekend away from home. For Pennsbury, the Gateway City Classic was an eye-opener. It was the light turning on for a team that had had its confidence shaken more than once this season.

"Before the trip, I think there always might have been something in the back of the team's minds that said, 'We might be OK, but we're not as good as we were last year,' " Pennsbury coach Tom Stoddart said. "Now, I think they came back with that attitude of 'OK, we can play with anybody.' "

The 2009 Falcons were arguably the most talented team in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Four of the five seniors from that team are playing Division I soccer. And it was the talent of the 2009 team that earned Pennsbury an invitation to this year's Gateway City Classic.

Entering this season, national hype again surrounded Pennsbury. And by Week 4, the Falcons were up to No. 10 in ESPN's national poll.

But after two losses in one week in mid-September, the Falcons' national ranking was gone and their front-running status in the Suburban One League National Conference was in question.

Suddenly, Pennsbury (7-2) was fighting that empty feeling reminiscent of the team's heartbreaking loss to William Tennent in the second round of last year's District 1 tournament.

But that attitude changed when Waters' shot hit the back of the net in the 78th minute.

"After the game, everybody was just so amped up," senior forward Michael Loughery said. "It really was a huge confidence booster. We knew about [Greensboro Day School], and we kept hearing about how good they were.

"So to come out and beat them the way we did, we felt like we were on top of the world after that."

Loughery described the level of competition that weekend as even better than what he was expecting. To put it in context, Greensboro bounced back to beat Strongsville (Ohio), then the No. 13 team in the country, 4-1, Saturday.

Pennsbury's second win came Saturday by 4-3 against Collinsville (Ill.), after Matt Montgomery netted the winner with 1 minute, 30 seconds left in regulation.

"We were all disappointed with our two losses earlier in the year," Loughery said. "But we didn't hang our heads; we just went out there and tried to compete.

"But I think we came out and we played the best soccer we have all season [in St. Louis], and we showed everyone and ourselves what we can do."

Aside from the team's new attitude, Stoddart sees the three nights in St. Louis, which included a trip to the top of the Gateway Arch, as giving his players a higher sense of team chemistry.

When you have strong chemistry, he says, it makes the team experience more meaningful.

"If it's more than just practice and games, if it's a whole lifestyle and a whole experience, then it's easy to find that extra effort at the end of the season to try to keep that going," Stoddart said.

Based on its performance, Pennsbury was already offered an invitation back for next year's Classic. Based on what he saw this year, Stoddart has no intention of turning it down.

"I think this is something that is going to help out," Stoddart said. "But even as a standalone experience, it's something that really makes the season memorable for these kids."

 


Contact Chris Melchiorre at rallysports@phillynews.com.