It was about halfway through the New Hope-Solebury field hockey team’s 2018 season that coach Gwen Smith noticed something special.
She and her players took a step back, looked at their results and saw a trend: every one of their opponents finished the game with a 0 in the goals column.
“We were kind of like, ‘Oh my gosh. We haven’t lost to anybody, and we haven’t given up any goals,' ” Smith said. “So then we just aimed to continue that, and it became a huge piece of motivation.”
That motivation resulted in a nearly perfect 15-0-1 2018 regular season in which the Lions allowed just one goal -- in a 1-1 tie with Jenkintown -- behind junior goaltender Elsie Jones. The District One Class A playoffs came and went with three wins and no goals. The next goals allowed in the season also marked its end. A 2-0 loss to Oley Valley in the PIAA state quarterfinals ended their season with a 18-1-1 record.
So, when the 2019 season arrived, a team that didn’t lose a player to graduation, was ready to strive for complete perfection.
With a 5-0 win over Pennsbury on Oct. 17, the Lions did the amazing. In 18 regular-season games, they won every one without allowing a goal.
And, so far in the District 1 playoffs, they are 2-0 with two more shutout victories. So the current shutout streak stands at 20. Next up is Springfield (Montco) in the district championship game on Tuesday.
“I knew we had it in us, but you never really know,” Smith said. “You try to set your goals higher. From a coaching perspective, that’s not a goal I set out. But it’s something they achieved, and it became very good motivation.”
The National Federation of State High School Associations lists Emmaus’ 1997 season of 23 consecutive shutouts as the high school record for field hockey. If the Lions win the PIAA state title, they will have finished 25-0.
But don’t think it has been smooth sailing.
Last spring, the Lions lost two seniors to ACL tears. One was Jones, who started every shutout victory the year before.
In stepped sophomore Lydia Eastburn, with monumental shoes to fill and a level of perfection to sustain.
She didn’t even blink.
“It was definitely a little nerve-racking going in," Eastburn said of the legacy of shutouts. “But I knew I had a really strong defense, and they saved a lot of shots. Some games I don’t get shot on. The defense is amazing. I can’t thank them enough.”
The defense is led by junior center-back Erin Firth. She emphasized the importance of communication along the back line and players knowing they don’t have to do it all alone. She and defenders Valentina Waschbush, MacKenzie Meyers and Carolyn Thislewaite have played together for three season and operate well as a unit.
“They all cover each other,” Smith said.
With a solid back line and a wall in net behind it, the Lions realized quickly that 2019 could be ever better than 2018. Other teams took notice as well.
“Instead of saying something like, ‘Team on three,’ I remember one team said, ‘Score on three! Score on three!’ ” Firth said.
“It’s all they wanted to do,” Eastburn added.
In the end, they weren’t able. Though, there were some close calls.
Eastburn cited a 1-0 win over Gwynedd Mercy on Oct. 7 as her toughest test. She faced a flurry of second-half shots, the most she dealt with all season, and two saves on corners by Meyers and Waschbush were crucial in holding the shutout.
Firth also thought the streak had ended when she found herself on the turf during the Lions’ opening game against Council Rock South.
“I had no idea where the ball was,” Firth said. “Then Sabrina Vlahovic came by and kicked the ball away. The whole team works great together like that.”
With a perfect regular season in the rear view mirror, the focus for New Hope-Solebury shifts to the playoffs, in which the Lions aim to win the PIAA District 1 Class A title again before advancing further into states. In the first two rounds of districts, New Hope-Solebury beat Delaware County Christian School, 12-0, and Dock Mennonite, 7-0.
Shutout wins against teams ranked in the PIAA’s Class 3A top 10 (Council Rock South) and Class 2A top 10 (Gwynedd Mercy) have given the Lions confidence. But they are not dwelling on scores.
“We achieved our goal for the regular season, but we can’t get too caught up in not being scored upon in the postseason,” Firth said. “Just focus on playing the game we need to play.”
“If a goal goes in, it goes in,” Eastburn said. “But if we still have more goals than them, we still win the game.”