CHAMBERSBURG >> Alex Fuentes leaned over the fence enclosing Chambersburg Area High School’s Trojan Field like a seasick passenger on an ocean liner. Ryan Straube sat on the turf, head in hands, separated from the loose grouping of misery that defined the Springfield sideline.
Twenty minutes after Seneca Valley forward Griffin Mathew’s overtime goal dashed Springfield’s hopes of a state title and sent them tumbling to a 1-0 loss Tuesday, none of the Cougars could coax themselves to their feet. They lingered near the bench in silence, trying to forestall the harsh realization that the moment that had whisked them to Chambersburg twice in four days had vanished in a swipe of Mathew’s right leg.
Few teams escape the fate that befell Springfield Tuesday night; 99 percent of seasons end with tears, with the agonizing bus ride, with goodbyes inevitable yet dreaded.
The Cougars weren’t immune from that destiny. But anyone that watched their arc through districts and states realizes that this team was different, in that ineffable way that yields success.
Springfield’s season isn’t defined by a championship, denied in the Central League, District One (both times by Conestoga) and now states. By their standards, though, the season’s accomplishments were monumental, as much for what they achieved as what the accolades meant to the group and in the context of the program’s past.
The difference seven weeks makes is astounding. Springfield started October with a 2-2 draw against Ridley — a team with one win on the season that finished in the basement of the Central League — that torpedoed already slim chances of challenging Conestoga for a league title and imperiled their hopes of a first-round bye in districts. It ended the month on a sunny Saturday morning with Nick Jannelli pumping in a game-winner against Pennsbury that sent Springfield to states.
Tuesday’s game bore a striking resemblance to that Pennsbury game, right down to the uniform colors and the absence of starting defender Justin Donnelly (first to a red card, then Tuesday to an aggravation of his knee injury). Springfield ceded possession and absorbed pressure. In the end, the only difference was the ending.
One constant emerged through the run to the state semis, one that exacerbated the despair late Tuesday night. Any of the standard issue questions about the Cougars’ unique journey — about chemistry, about surmounting adversity, about adjustments on the fly — was met with the same reply. Those refrains didn’t stem from a lack of originality or a concerted effort to keep information close to the vest; they simply reflected the underlying identity of the team. Whatever the question, the answers were assembled using the wisdom accrued over a decade playing together.
As young as six or seven years old, the current crop of high schoolers began gravitating toward Springfield Athletic Association. Their coaches for much of that journey were Peter Jannelli, Nick’s father, and Rich Duffey, first the head coach at Springfield, then an assistant as he and Jason Piombino swapped roles nine years ago … around the time that critical mass of talent was aggregating at SAA.
Cohesion isn’t a hollow motif at Springfield: Ten of the starters were seniors. Donnelly’s replacement, the senior Fuentes, is often first off the bench. In all, the roster lists 14 players with a “12” in the grade column.
And they all trace their roots to those SAA days. Each player’s path has meandered through their youths — Andrew Astrino to hockey and his club play at Rose Tree S.C., Jannelli to Lower Merion Soccer Club, goalie Mike Gerzabek to the lacrosse field, which will take him to Cabrini next fall. The influx of players meant SAA split into two clubs at junctures, changing the permutations of who played with whom.
But the constant in all this was the relationship that tied them together. The club players on Piombino’s roster number in single digits, while Springfield is the sixth-smallest school among District One’s Class AAA contingent. (Its enrollment is less than half of the finalists, Central Bucks East and Seneca Valley, per the PIAA).
Yet this fall, as most of them had for the last three years, they gathered in August, shook off the cobwebs of other sports and went at it, leveraging their relationships to take the program deeper than it has ever gone, booking a first states berth in 34 years and improbably winning two games in the tourney.
“The ride was just unbelievable,” said midfielder Mike Wallace, failing to fight back the tears like the rest of his teammates. “We were just a family the whole way through. It just didn’t end the way we wanted it to.”
Those family bonds inform Nick Jannelli’s first gesture after the game. Before tending to Fuentes, his first move was to hug the lone sophomore interloper on the senior-heavy bunch, defender Ronnie Miller, maybe the most distraught of the bunch.
The seniors have played their last in Springfield white and blue. Miller is the standard bearer for the future. More than anything, what Jannelli and his peers hope to pass on to the next generation is that connection, the one that can turn a group of friends and teammates into a squad whose legacy will long endure.
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