WARMINSTER >> Even in the one instance when he was beaten Wednesday night, Springfield goalkeeper Mike Gerzabek didn’t go down without a fight.
The senior shot-stopper has been fantastic in the District One Class AAA tournament and Wednesday’s performance against Conestoga was no different. But for one fluky bounce, the third-seeded Cougars could’ve been playing for a district title.
Gerzabek made seven saves in the semifinal at William Tennent High School, but one of that group caromed off a defender and into the net for an own goal that stood as the only marker in a 1-0 Conestoga win.
“It’s disappointing, but there’s nothing really you can do about it,” Gerzabek said. “You just have to keep your head in the game.”
The victory sends the No. 2 Pioneers (19-0-1) into a clash of unbeatens in the final with top-seeded Central Bucks East, which trounced No. 4 West Chester Henderson in the other semifinal, 4-1, Saturday at Souderton (5 p.m.). Springfield (15-4-3) will play for states seeding against Henderson.
The goal that separated the Central League rivals came off a bizarre sequence. Left back Zach Brink’s cross in the 64th minute was redirected, creating an opportunity for a quick-thinking Logan Schwartz, who swooped in and flung his head at the ball.
Gerzabek, as he had all game, charged resolutely off his line to get his left hand to the shot near the top of the six-yard box. But as he batted the ball downward, it found the leg of Springfield defender John Ryan Kilker, sliding in from the off wing, to usher unceremoniously into a yawning cage.
“Their defense was caught flat-footed, so I just ran in behind them and got a head on it,” Schwartz said. “And luckily the goalie hit it off their defender and in. … (I was thinking) just get something on it, and hopefully I’ll get a goal.”
“In the box, it just flies around,” Springfield right back Alex Fuentes said. “And it just happened to hit off the goalie and right off of Kilker, right into the net. Can’t say it wasn’t our fault, but stuff happens.”
Conestoga’s goal was certainly the result of a decisive domination of play, particularly after halftime. The Pioneers forced Gerzabek into seven saves, several of the outstanding variety. They hit the crossbar and post. They won eight corner kicks to Springfield’s two.
In one regard, the goal seems due payment for the heaps of Pioneers’ pressure. In another, it appears unjust for a Springfield defense that held resolutely for so long to be victimized in such unlucky fashion.
“I don’t think any one of us played bad,” Fuentes said. “We all played our hearts out out there. We know what was at stake. In the end, we lost, but we did our best and couldn’t have done any better.”
Fuentes was under an especially bright spotlight. Usually a winger, the senior deputized at fullback for Justin Donnelly, who was suspended for a red card incurred in Saturday’s quarterfinal with Pennsbury.
Fuentes acquitted himself ably, but Donnelly’s loss robbed the Cougars of another body for the rotation. Where Conestoga routinely swapped out four of its attacking six — including Schwartz, who started on the bench — there were no fresh legs waiting for Springfield, no matter how much energy they expended defending.
“I know in the second half, I was getting a little winded,” Fuentes said. “I wanted a two-minute break, but then you’ve got to just put your head in it and find something to push through it.”
The Pioneers rarely let up on the gas pedal. Matt Marcelli hit the crossbar from distance 10 minutes in, and a header by Dan Leiser off a corner kick with 21 minutes to play clanged the post to Gerzabek’s left.
Gerzabek made a tremendous diving save midway through the first half, and Kilker bailed him out by clearing a juicy rebound he left on a plate in the six. Gerzabek also plucked a Mason Sellig shot that appeared ticketed for the top corner out of the air.
Though Springfield forced four saves out of Conestoga goalkeeper Will Smith, few were troubling. Mitch Masi’s effort 90 seconds into the second half, a low shot into Smith’s gut after he found space on the left wing, was about as dangerous a chance as the Cougars could conjure. Nick Jannelli and Andrew Astrino looked dangerous on the ball, but those touches rarely came in the attacking third, where possession was too seldom.
Ultimately, the performance holds positives for Springfield. The Cougars dropped their first meeting with Conestoga, 2-0, in mid-September. Wednesday, they showed how far they’ve progressed from that juncture, coming one awkward bounce from stalemating the Pioneers for 80 minutes.
“I think there are good things to take from this,” Gerzabek said. “We battled with them. They didn’t have it easy. They practically didn’t even score the goal themselves, so …”
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