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Conestoga tops Lower Merion to cap perfect season in dramatic fashion

TREDYFFRIN >> Winning the Central League regular season crown and earning a possible No. 1 seed for the upcoming District 1 Playoffs simply wasn’t enough for the Conestoga boys’ soccer squad.

The unbeaten Pioneers wanted to make an even bigger statement on Senior Night at electric Teamer Field, and senior midfielder Blaise Milanek delivered, scoring the game winner less than three minutes into the overtime session to cap off a 2-1 victory over visiting Lower Merion on Tuesday evening.

“It’s my senior year and I’m lucky to go out on a bang like this,” Milanek said. “I couldn’t be prouder of this team. It was quite a way to end it.”

Conestoga (11-0) had already wrapped up the Central League crown. Now 18-0 overall, the Pioneers became the first boys soccer team in school history to complete the regular season without a blemish.

“You want to try to accomplish as many things as possible in a season,” said Conestoga head coach David Zimmerman. “We already had the Central League title in our back pocket, but having this claim to fame is something that can’t be bettered.”

Seeded seventh in the latest District 1 power rankings, Lower Merion completes the regular season at 8-2-1 (12-2-2 overall), and like Conestoga, has high hopes for the postseason.

“There is a reason these two teams have the records that they have,” said Aces head coach Nico Severini. “There was a lot of good soccer out there, a lot of good passing and good creativity.”

“Our boys stepped up to the challenge, but fell a little short at the end.”

At the 7:36 mark of the OT, Milanek got his head on a throw-in by teammate Will Klein and deposited it into the back of the net. The game-winner sparked a raucous celebration, with the large and boisterous student section storming the field.

“I just made a bee-line for the far post, I hit it, and I saw the ball in the back of the net,” Milanek recalled. “I didn’t really know if I had scored or if I had the assist, I just knew that we won.”

Zimmerman added: “We talked that this game may be decided on an ugly goal, where the ball was just bouncing around in the box, so in practice we’ve worked on just getting any body part on the ball in those types of situations.”

In contrast, the early going in both the first and second halves weren’t nearly as much fun for the large partisan crowd. Less than 10 minutes into the action, the Pioneers found themselves in a 1-0 hole on an own goal by junior defender Mike McCarthy. It came when McCarthy mistakenly redirected a corner kick by the Aces’ Alex Moureaud into the ’Stoga goal.

Midway through the first half, the Pioneers knotted it at 1-1 when Chris Donovan beat Lower Merion goaltender, Sebastian Connolly, to a looping centering pass from teammate Rodrigo Martinez. Donovan’s header popped over Connolly’s head and in. It was the junior’s 13th goal of the season.

Officially, the Aces never did register a shot on goal against Conestoga, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have scoring chances. In one frenzied 34 second span in the second half, Lower Merion’s Kirk Robinson and Max Shapiro each had prime opportunities, but their efforts sailed over the crossbar.

“To Lower Merion’s credit, in the second half they really had the better of the play for most of the half,” Zimmerman acknowledged. “It wasn’t until the end of regulation, where we had a surge.

“I think they were getting a little tired. We do have a lot of good players, so we can afford to rotate and we don’t drop-off too much. It allows us to keep our guys fresh, so that by overtime, they still have legs.”

The Pioneers very nearly won it in the final seconds of regulation. Lower Merion’s Thomas Podrasky was issued a yellow card with six seconds on the clock, and Milanek was awarded a free kick. After touching a total of four Conestoga players, the ball found its way into the net … but time had expired.

“Will Klein made a great save when it looked like it was going out of bounds, and (Logan Schwartz) headed it across, and Jack Murphy put it in,” explained Milanek. “But the ref said that it came after the buzzer.

“But at that point, I was thinking that all of the momentum had started to swing toward us. I just knew it was coming. It was just a matter of time.”

It all set the stage for overtime Milanek’s heroics.

“Anything can happen in an overtime match, and it comes down to whoever makes the first mistake or whoever has fortune on their side,” Severini said. “Tonight weren’t on the fortune side of it.”

Afterwards, both head coaches talked about the Friday Night-like atmosphere at Teamer Field.

“The crowd atmosphere was phenomenal. We always look forward these to big-time games, especially heading into the playoffs,” Severini said.

“It was a great crowd,” Zimmerman added. “We talked about this being a dress rehearsal for the playoffs with the atmosphere, the energy and a very good opponent. You couldn’t ask for a better regular season finale to get yourself ready for the postseason.

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