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Sisters Kaleigh and Madison Gallagher always played soccer together. A Navy-Loyola game made them opponents.

Kaleigh Gallagher of Loyola Maryland
Kaleigh Gallagher of Loyola Maryland (Craig F. Chase)

After years of playing organized soccer with her older sister on recreational, club and high school teams, Madison Gallagher has a pretty good idea of how Kaleigh Gallagher handles the ball. So when the two stood on the field at Ridley Athletic Complex in Baltimore on Saturday evening, the younger Gallagher took a trip down Memory Lane.

“When I first saw her dribble the ball and get possession of it, I think it kind of hit me a little bit because I’ve watched her dribble the ball so many times from the stands or when I was behind her in the goal,” Madison Gallagher said. “So it was definitely a little bit weirder with her coming at me full speed.”

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For the first time in their soccer careers, the sisters lined up Saturday as adversaries, not teammates. Kaleigh Gallagher, a junior midfielder, and Loyola Maryland suffered a 1-0 setback to Madison Gallagher, a freshman goalkeeper, and Navy, and both admitted to feeling slightly unsettled facing each other as opponents.

“It was a great moment, but it was a different feeling because I wanted her to succeed, but I also wanted to score a goal on her, and I wanted the team to win,” Kaleigh Gallagher, 20, said with a laugh. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.”

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Countered Madison Gallagher, 18: “I want the best for my sister. I want her to win. She could win every other game, but not against us.”

And absorbing it all from the stands were their parents, Peter and Stacy Gallagher, who drove from their home in Gilbertsville, Pennsylvania, to attend the game. Peter Gallagher, the head football coach at Ursinus College, called it a “unique experience.”

“I think it was very similar to what they probably felt,” he said, pointing out that the girls get their soccer talent from his wife, the former Stacy Konick who was a member of the 1989 Hammond girls soccer team that captured the Class 2A-1A state championship. “The hype was a little bit more intense than usual, but once the game got underway, things settled down. I don’t know if my wife would say that, but once things settled in, I was just really thankful for Loyola allowing us to be there in person.”

Madison Gallagher of Navy.
Madison Gallagher of Navy. (Craig F. Chase)

Saturday’s meeting was a few years in the making. In 2019, Madison Gallagher made a verbal commitment to enroll at Navy, knowing full well that the Midshipmen and Greyhounds competed against each other in the Patriot League.

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“I loved playing with her, but in high school, it was always Kaleigh,” the younger Gallagher said, adding that she did consider joining her sister at Loyola. “So I kind of wanted to be my own person. That doesn’t disregard the fact that everything she does, I do, but I’m a homebody. So I needed to get out on my own and experience things myself.”

Kaleigh Gallagher said she and her parents gave Madison some advice, but did not try to change her mind.

“I was older than her, and in high school, my teachers were always like, ‘Oh, you’re Kaleigh’s sister,’ and she didn’t like that at all,” Kaleigh Gallagher said. “She wanted to have her own path. So her whole thing was, ‘I’m going to go to a school that competes with Loyola,’ and Navy was the perfect school.”

Although the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the fall season, the Patriot League planned for a soccer season this spring. And even though an originally scheduled game for March 6 was called off because the Naval Academy was under a restriction of movement order, the two schools settled on Saturday as the makeup date.

Greyhounds coach Joe Mallia said he discussed with Kaleigh Gallagher and the entire team about the need to approach Saturday’s game as they would any other game on the schedule.

“Human nature would tell you that there had to be a different feel for her going into it,” Mallia said. “But I would imagine that she probably tried to temper her approach to the game so as not to get herself too amped up for the game to the point that she couldn’t perform.”

The Gallagher sisters did not cut off communications, talking frequently before the game. During one conversation, Madison Gallagher asked if they could do their usual handshake, a gesture they copied from The Disney Channel’s “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody,” before the game, but Kaleigh Gallagher demurred, saying they had to maintain a sense of professionalism.

After the playing of the national anthem, the sisters did make eye contact and mouthed to each other, “I love you. Good luck.”

Kaleigh Gallagher took two shots during the game, but none were on-net. She admitted to adding some power to her kicks.

“It was just another game, but you could tell on the field that I wanted to rip a couple shots on her,” she said.

Madison Gallagher, who finished with two saves and earned the Patriot League Goalkeeper of the Week award for registering her first collegiate shutout, said she didn’t begrudge her sister trying to put one past her.

“But I was also imagining taking her out on her feet if we had a one-v-one,” she said with a laugh.

After the game, Madison Gallagher made a beeline for her sister to wrap her in a bear hug.

“I was so happy for the win and everything, but I could celebrate that later,” she said. “We don’t get to spend a lot of time together, and I just wanted to see my sister. I remember hugging her, but I didn’t even get to see her for more than 10 seconds. It was a little bit emotional because it was the first time we had seen each other in a long time.”

Said Kaleigh Gallagher: “I said, ‘I’m really proud of you.’ Then she wanted to hug me again through the tunnel, but I was like, ‘OK, we can’t do that. Our administration is standing right there.’ It was nice that we got to at least exchange some words and that my parents got to be there.”

Peter and Stacy Gallagher did their best to show support for both daughters. Peter Gallagher wore a Loyola hat, while Stacy Gallagher wore a Navy hat. They both wore “House Divided” T-shirts created by Kaleigh Gallagher’s own streetwear line and tried to straddle the midfield line with Peter Gallagher on the Midshipmen’s side and Stacy Gallagher on the Greyhounds’ side.

As nerve-wracking as Saturday’s game might have been, Peter Gallagher said he would be thrilled if the girls and their teams clashed again in the Patriot League tournament later this month.

“If they could play each other in a playoff atmosphere, that means they’ve both had some success and their teams have had some success,” he said. “It would almost for me be less stressful because you’re doing something right. You’ve won some games, and you’re in the postseason. So just go out and have some fun and celebrate your teams and celebrate being in that moment.”

If Loyola and Navy were to meet in the postseason, there could be a scenario where the game extends to a penalty shootout and Kaleigh Gallagher is tasked with taking a kick against Madison Gallagher. The hypothetical shook the sisters.

“Dang, you just gave me goose bumps,” Kaleigh Gallagher said. “I would feel like I’m in a dream, but I think I was pretty good during the game with blocking out the fact that it was my sister who was in the net. So I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do for my team and put the ball in the back of the net and just walk away.”

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Said Madison Gallagher: “I’d have to think back to some memories to see what side she goes to. Let’s just hope that never happens. That is just the absolute worst scenario I can think of in my head.”

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Whatever happens this season or the next, the Gallagher sisters said their love for each other is unwavering.

“There were no hard feelings,” Kaleigh Gallagher said. “I want her to be successful.”

Said Madison Gallagher: “No matter what Kaleigh does, she’s my biggest role model. A soccer game would never take me away from my sister. When I’m older, I want to have a house next to hers, and I want her to be a part of my life forever. I don’t think a soccer game is going to break the bond that Kayleigh and I have had for our whole lives.”

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