WHITEHALL Palisades' defensive scheme was a sign of the respect the Pirates have for Northwestern's offensive firepower.
But it wasn't enough to keep the Tigers off the board. After 69 scoreless minutes of soccer, Sabrina Mertz knocked in the game's only goal to send Northwestern to the District 11 Class AA girls soccer title game with a 1-0 semifinal win over Palisades.
"Palisades is a really good team," said Mertz. "They always give us a tough match. We didn't have many opportunities today so we needed to finish the ones we got. Luckily we did that and we got the win."
The Pirates played with just one forward and they marked two of Northwestern's most dangerous scorers, Sarah Segan and Sara Jones. The strategy worked in that it limited the Tigers chances. They put eight shots on goal in the first half and 14 for the game, but couldn't get one past keeper Elise McClintock until late in the second half.
The play started with Lexi Gawelko passing to Mertz, who had made a wide run and was just off the left side of the goal. The sophomore midfielder knocked it past McClintock for a 1-0 lead with just 10:42 left in the game.
"Lexi made a good pass," said Mertz. "I knew I had to finish it."
Northwestern (18-1-0) maintained possession for long stretches and kept the ball in its offensive half of the field for extended periods of time. But the No. 7 seed Pirates (11-8-1) were committed to playing a defensive-minded game and didn't allowed players to run free and they limited the No. 2 seed Tigers to six corners.
"They're obviously a very skilled team," said Palisades head coach Joy Wolf. "We knew coming in here we would have to limit their opportunities. We had to play a little bit more defensively than we normally do just because they have some offensive threats."
Neither team had much time to prepare. Hurricane Sandy knocked out power at both schools and neither team has been able to follow its normal practice schedule.
In the Northwestern area, many people were still without cell phone service so the game's rescheduling was spread by word of mouth.
"We had to physically send people to people's houses to inform them there is a game today," said Northwestern head coach Kelly Bleam.
The Tigers move on to Saturday's district title game, where they will meet top-seeded Saucon Valley, the only team to beat them this season.
"They gave us a great match," said Mertz. "To get another shot at them is what we want."
Northwestern is coming off its second consecutive undefeated season, but is looking for its first title. The Tigers fell in last year's league, district and state playoffs. The players are relishing the chance to take home some hardware this year.
"We worked so hard in both those seasons and it was heartbreaking in both those losses," said Mertz. "When we play in the final, we're going to give everything because we want a title so bad."