NEWTOWN SQUARE >> When Springfield lined up Saturday for the District One Class AAA quarterfinals against Pennsbury, their starting XI numbered 10 seniors.
That’s not particularly rare: The Falcons countered with nine seniors. But the path traversed by the Cougars’ leaders — to a berth in the PIAA tournament and Wednesday night’s District One Class AAA semifinals against No. 2 Conestoga (William Tennent, 7) — endows them with a special perspective.
At larger schools, a seniors-only policy can be enforced. But Springfield’s surplus of veteran savvy is earned, not legislated. Most worked their way up the ladder, illustrating Jason Piombino’s preference to play the best, not eldest. Justin Donnelly and Nick Jannelli played as freshmen, while most of the senior corps — Mike Wallace, Ryan Straube, Mitch Masi, Andrew Astrino and others — featured as sophomores.
That trajectory makes the first states berth since 1983 feel like a culmination.
“I never expected us to get that far when we started playing with (assistant coach Rich) Duffey and Mr. (Peter) Jannelli way back,” Masi said Monday at practice at Gable Field. “They always told us this could happen, but it’s kind of like, everybody says that. Now that it’s happening.”
Part of the experience entailed learning as spectators. Masi was struck as an eighth- and ninth-grader, witnessing the varsity squad drop playoff games at Central Bucks West and Wissahickon, respectively.
Imbibing that atmosphere helped spur the current crop to exceed those heights. The seniors in 2012 — All-Delcos Dave Sousa and Kyle Chevalier, second-teamer Mark Gurenlian, among others — were instrumental in mentoring the youngsters in the program, Masi said. The investment of that group has amplified the rapturous joy around Saturday’s states qualification via Nick Jannelli’s last-minute goal.
“We saw what we did with the people that just left, and they told us we could do something special this year,” Masi said. “The little playoff experience that we had and what we watched in the past really helped, I think.”
For all the talk of seniors, it’s fitting as the No. 3 Cougars (15-3-1) take on Central League rival Conestoga (18-0-1) that one of the most influential figures promises to be Saturday’s only non-senior, sophomore defender Ron Miller.
Miller has assumed an outsized part all season thanks to injuries; Wednesday, Donnelly’s red-card suspension will force Miller to reprise the role of covering for Donnelly, as he did during the senior’s three-week injury hiatus.
Leaning on the veteran framework has aided Miller’s prosperity.
“It helps a lot having a lot of seniors help support and teach me along the way,” he said. “But it’s also tough because I have to live up to how they play. They’re all really talented, like Straube in the back. But they give a lot of support and help. Whenever I get down, they’re always there to pick me up.”
Conestoga took the regular-season matchup, 2-0, at home Sept. 17. Irrespective of the trend of favorite dominance this tournament, the unbeaten Pioneers are a marked favorite.
While the Cougars played down the revenge angle Monday, they recognize the more pertinent psychological battle is to put aside Saturday’s high in pursuit of a district title.
“I think we have forgotten about Saturday,” Masi said. “It was great, but we’ve got to not live in the past. We’re only as good as our next game.”
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