Two undefeated teams stood between the Lancaster Inferno and a second consecutive United Women’s Soccer East Conference Title entering last weekend. Neither of those teams left the weekend without a loss on its ledger, and Lancaster came away holding the trophy.
The Inferno defeated the Connecticut Fusion, 2-1, on Friday, before beating the New England Mutiny by the same score on Sunday to claim the title.
“We think it’s a big deal,” head coach Francisco Cleaves said. “One thing I tell the team is that we’re representing Lancaster, this part of the state, and to play with a chip on their shoulder, right? A lot of people don’t know where we’re located. On paper, a lot of teams look better than we do.”
Lancaster advances to play in the UWS Championship this weekend, where it will take on the cost side, Calgary Foothills WFC, in the national semifinals.
Even recently, such a run seemed unlikely.
The Inferno went 0-3 against Connecticut and New England in the regular season, and suffered a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of New England at home on July 6, with UWS leading scorer Kate Howarth tallying all three of those goals.
But, after dispatching Connecticut behind goals from Megan Carroll and Haley Crawford, the Inferno finally solved the Mutiny at the season’s most important juncture.
“Our goal in both games was to be able to get ahead,” Cleaves said. “If we could score first, then we could dictate the pace of the game. Obviously, against Mutiny, we were able to do that.”
Kay Liebl scored off a corner kick in the game’s first five minutes, giving the Inferno the cushion they sought.
The next ingredient the Inferno needed to pull off a win, Cleaves said, was a good performance from goalkeeper Kelly O’Brien.
Put a checkmark next to that one, too.
“She had several saves that were headed to the back of the net,” Cleaves said. “They had three or four direct kicks that were from right outside the box that were really well placed, and Kelly just came up big.”
Even that couldn’t prevent the drama, though. Howarth scored her fifth goal of the season in three games against the Inferno in the 72nd minute to tie the game at 1.
The decisive strike came from Jackie Richards, who outran all defenders on the right wing and scored to secure the title.
For the Inferno, who left for Connecticut on Thursday and returned early Monday morning, a long road trip turned out to be a positive.
With the group together throughout the weekend, the Inferno could easily manage nutrition and sleep, while also dedicating extra time to scouting each opponent.
They left the distractions of home behind and focused in, coming away with two wins over the UWS East Conference’s top-seeded teams.
For a team that still gets comments from people within the area who weren’t aware they existed, this two-year run of success takes on added meaning.
“We’re a smaller club with a lot of local players,” Cleaves said. “I think that will help us get the word out...I think it just gets us known more in the area.”
The Inferno plans to leave Thursday for Calgary, with their UWS semifinal game set for Saturday at 4:00 p.m.