GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP – Delaney Sabath is "Exhibit A" in any discussion of the surprising Absegami High School girls soccer team.
Sabath came into her senior season as a veteran striker, expected to see plenty of action on a Braves team hard-hit by graduation. But when projected starting goalkeeper Shelby Cressman suffered a broken ankle just before preseason, coach Elizabeth Lee put out an emergency casting call for an athletic girl who could fill the role in a pinch.
"Delaney didn't even hesitate," Lee said. "She was like, 'I'll do it.'"
"I had played goalie when I was younger," Sabath said. "I was a little hesitant at first because I was a little rusty, but now ... I"ve been working real hard, and I got back in the groove. I'm feeling real good. I love it."
Helped by her team's strong, defense-first mentality, Sabath has been a pleasant surprise for the Braves, sparking the team to a 7-5 record, including four straight wins going into this Friday's rematch with undefeated rival Oakcrest. She made a great diving save with about 10 minutes left in a game against Cedar Creek on Oct. 4, making a lone goal by senior Daniela Nunez stand up in a 1-0 win.
Sabath said she learned a lot from playing with three-year starter Becca Roesch the last three years, along with her work this year with goalkeeper trainer Leandra Russo, another former Absegami goalie. But much of her success is based on athleticism and quick reaction.
Asked what was going through her mind on that big save, Sabath said, "Nothing, not a thought went through. I've been working real hard this season because I didn't play goalie before, so to save stuff like that is pretty special. When we played Cedar Creek the first time (a double overtime loss), there was a similar shot. It bounced off the top post ... and I missed it. So this time, it was redemption for me."
Lee said those goalie instincts have been the most surprising element of Sabath's play. "You can't teach that," Lee said. "Leandra (Russo) has a lot to work with, because she's so coachable and she's so willing to learn. We wouldn't be the same team if Delaney didn't step into that role, and to do not even just an adequate job ... She's been above even my expectations."
The same can be said of the Braves in general. After losing team captains Julia Dolan and Emma Wilkins, both now playing at Temple University, along with goalie Roesch to graduation, Absegami was expected to be in rebuilding mode this season.
"On paper that's what it would be like," Lee said. "But I told them (before the season), 'Look around you, there are some very good technical players here.' In every other game (before the Cedar Creek game) we've probably had 70-80 percent of the possession, we just couldn't finish. They are starting to believe there are other people that can score. Sometimes when you have a (Dolan) or (Wilkins), you just go to them. You look for them and no one else steps up. This year it was like, 'Who's it going to be?' and everyone's doing it. Everyone's stepping up and everyone's playing defense. We don't need a star, we need a team, and that's how we're winning games."
Lee said several players are starting to gain confidence and show their potential, including sophomores Allie Tierney and Courtney Gaston. Lee said Tierney has the ability to be one of the top playmakers in the Cape-Atlantic League in the next year or two, while Gaston, already one of the top defenders in South Jersey, according to Lee, has become the team's top scorer. Gaston had a fine assist in the 1-0 win over Cedar Creek, splitting the defenders before sending the ball through to Nunez for the goal.
"I hoped it wouldn't be the only goal of the game," said Nunez. "That was a little scary. It's not my first goal but it was a big one."
Asked if it was the biggest win of the season for the Braves, Nunez said, "It was a big one. We're all really happy. There'll be more big wins. There should be."