The show goes on: Despite the gradudation of nine seniors, Devon Keller (fifth from right) and Franklin Towne seek a fourth straight soccer title. ED MORRONE / TIMES PHOTO
Brianna O’Donnell is not naive. As a high school sports coach for the better part of the last decade, she knew this part was coming.
What she didn’t know was how her Franklin Towne Charter girls soccer team would answer the call following time’s inevitable cycle.
A brief history lesson: Towne, which opened in 2000, took some time in establishing a successful athletics program. When a new school opens its doors, things begin at the bottom and build upward once the foundation is set.
A decade later, O’Donnell and Towne found themselves on top of the Public League mountain, the sudden victors of three straight championships. O’Donnell’s fiery dedication to Towne soccer was aided by otherworldly goal-scoring talent from forwards Rachel Gilborges (a school-record 83 career goals) and Stefanie Ulmer (61 tallies of her own). Gilborges and Ulmer’s nose for the goal — plus stingy defense and goaltending, led by sweeper Rebecca Gilborges (Rachel’s twin sister) and keeper Alivia Dietsch — allowed Towne to put up a plethora of lopsided margins on the scoreboard.
The quartet was rightfully named to the All-Public First Team following its senior season. However, after the three-peat was signed, sealed and delivered, O’Donnell began facing the unavoidable question of what now?
Enter Devon Keller.
Keller, a four-year varsity starter, played defense alongside Rebecca Gilborges for three seasons at the fullback position. After Towne graduated nine seniors (eight starters), Keller was left to pick up the remaining pieces. Coming into 2014, she was named the team’s only captain and shifted to Rebecca Gilborges’ all-important sweeper position.
“Becca taught me most of what I know,” Keller said following Monday afternoon’s 2–0 win over Philadelphia Academy Charter. “How to be a leader, how to step up and control the team and how to make sure everybody plays together as one. It’s a huge responsibility, but with the coach and players believing in me, as well as me believing in myself, I think that we’ll be OK.”
Keller, now the quarterback of the defense, put her skills on full display against PACS. She put a body on any player attempting to attack Towne’s goal (and new keeper Destiny Grayson) and confidently turned away most of the opposing team’s chances before Grayson had to. While not the chattiest interviewee, Keller did her talking on the field, stating that one of her biggest strengths is “being the biggest, loudest mouth out there.”
Most likely gone are the crooked 8–0 and 9–1 wins that filled the schedule with Gilborges, Gilborges and Ulmer in tow. In their place will be lower-scoring contests like Monday’s 2–0 victory and last week’s season-opening 4–1 win over Central, battles won on defense and in the midfield. If Towne (2–1 overall) continues to follow this formula and take advantage of the chances it does have on offense, then it won’t have to blow out every single opponent.
“I’m looking at what we gained, not what we lost,” Keller confidently stated. “I told the team before the Central game that we have a whole new team. Everything is different, so we have to step up.”
And of course, Keller, as one of the most experienced veterans still standing from the three title teams, has the opportunity to win four league titles in four years.
“It would be the continuation of a dynasty that we created together,” she said.
O’Donnell moved Keller to sweeper with the hope that having an experienced leader back there calling the shots would help spread confidence through the rest of the team. So far, players like Laura Smith (three goals) and Megan Stapf (two goals) have benefitted from Keller’s ability to move the ball up the field and create chances.
“Putting her at sweeper gave us the best chance to defend our goal, but it also gave the inexperienced kids a voice to listen to,” O’Donnell said. “That’s important, especially with a new goalie. We have a lot of new players, and Devon is convincing them to come out and give 100-percent effort every day in practice. So even if we make some mistakes and experience some growing pains, it won’t be the end of the world because of the effort she demands.”
A three-peat is certainly a special accomplishment, but four in a row? That’s rare, and Keller has her teammates and school believing.
“I definitely see potential, a lot of potential,” she said.
O’Donnell loves what her captain brings to the table, both in on-field skills and leadership ability.
“She’ll never give up on the play,” O’Donnell said. “It’s reassuring for her teammates that they can depend on her back there. She puts her body in front of it and does whatever it takes to protect the ball from our goal.
“Devon knows this program has a reputation to live up to now. She takes that very seriously, and her actions speak louder than I do. They can count on each other, and that’s something she models for the rest of the team.” ••