SPRINGFIELD >> Justin Donnelly contorts his face when recalling his recent injury past. It’s not for length of time — the Grade 2 MCL strain only happened three weeks ago, a truth he reveals with elongated syllables and a rise in pitch of his voice.
The voice change is partially a measure of surprise, but Thursday, that was augmented by a sense of accomplishment.
The prognosis on Donnelly’s knee stipulated a six-to-eight week recovery. But the Springfield defender knew that just over two weeks remained in his senior season, three until the dawn of the playoffs that his team looked likely to make.
The challenge was crystal clear.
“I just wanted to get back and play again for my senior year,” Donnelly said after his Cougars’ 2-1 overtime defeat of Central Bucks West in the second round the District One Class AAA tournament. “I missed my senior night, which was kind of tough. But being able to play in this game was amazing.”
Donnelly and Springfield take the next step Saturday morning when they welcome No. 6 seed Pennsbury to Halderman Field. Kickoff for one of District One’s four berths in the PIAA Tournament is at 10 a.m.
For all of its success, Springfield’s story is one of loss, adjustment and resilience, and Donnelly is merely one facet.
Donnelly’s first game out of the lineup was Oct. 6 against Radnor, a game also missed by central defense mate Ryan Straube, though the All-Central pick’s absence proved briefer. That night at Radnor coincided with Mike Wallace’s return from a lengthy illness, and the midfielder deputized in defense.
Donnelly’s diagnosis called for at least a month on the sidelines, which he deemed wholly unworkable. So he pushed, through an aggressive course of physical therapy several times a week supplemented by stretching and strength-building exercises at home. With a little determination, Donnelly, sporting a hefty knee brace made to look bigger by his diminutive frame, returned for his first action Thursday in an elimination game, third-seeded Springfield’s first following a bye.
The C.B. West game was the first time this season the Cougars have been at full strength, a remarkable statement given their program-best record of 14-3-2 that has them in the district quarterfinals for the first time since 1983. The caliber and cohesiveness of the squad into which Donnelly returned played a big part not just in his dedication to get back but the ease of the transition.
“It made me feel a whole lot better coming back,” Donnelly said. “… Knowing that they were able to hold it down while I was gone made it much easier coming back.”
That the musical chairs at the back have yielded such stoutness is impressive, but so is the tantalizing proposition of how the Cougars’ formation morphs with Donnelly, Wallace and the rest of the cohort healthy, a domino effect bolstering all levels of the team.
With Donnelly and Straube renewing their partnership, coach Jason Piombino utilized three at the back, with Wallace the deep-lying midfielder acting as a shield and a conduit to start attacking moves.
That steadiness frees Nick Jannelli, who assisted on both goals and created numerous dangerous chances with his dancing runs, of defensive responsibility and allows him to obtain possession higher up the pitch. It permits Andrew Astrino, who scored the game-winning goal, to drift into pockets of space nearer the opposing defense, high-pressing the Bucks’ backline and reinforcing the lone weakness on the roster, the lack of consistent center forward play. With Wallace, Donnelly, Straube and Ronnie Miller comprising the backline, former fullback Mitch Masi bombed down the flank, assisting on Maxx Drumm’s opening goal.
“We missed him when he was hurt,” Jannelli said of Donnelly. “We had to switch guys around. We played a marking system in the back, so we have to switch guys around to cover his spot. And with him back, it lets the guy in his spot go forward. It helps us strengthen the entire team.”
Composed defense will be required against Pennsbury (14-4-2), which reached the quarters by dispatching Lower Merion, 3-0. The Falcons have excellent playmakers in Colin Marks and Zach LoBosso, while they’re also dangerous on set pieces.
Donnelly, though, is eager for the challenge. While the Cougars have been a fixture in the postseason recently, qualifying for a state tournament is a monumental step forward. They’ve broken new ground, having exceeded many of the benchmarks set by the teams of the early 1980s on which assistant coach Rich Duffey starred, and Donnelly wants to lead his Cougars headlong into this uncharted territory.
“It means the world because Duffey always bragged to us that he was on the best team that ever happened at Springfield,” Donnelly said. “He wanted us to prove him wrong, and that’s what we’re here to do. We’re here to do it for ourselves. We’re all one big family.”
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