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Schwartz earns Conestoga a little revenge on Central Bucks East

TREDYFFRIN >> When Logan Schwartz checked in for the final time with 17 minutes to play Saturday, and again when Mason Miller entered with 10 left, the message from Conestoga coach David Zimmerman was succinct: Closing time.

“The mentality is really just to keep up the pressure,” Miller said. “We know that there’s only a few minutes left in the game, and if we didn’t do anything, it would go to overtime. We just wanted to get a goal, put it away early and finish the game off.”

Conestoga's Mason Miller, left, vies for a ball with Abington's Donald Gibbs Thursday. Miller set up Logan Schwartz's game-winner in Saturday's District 1 Class 4A quarterfinal win over Central Bucks East, 1-0. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

Conestoga’s Mason Miller, left, vies for a ball with Abington’s Donald Gibbs Thursday. Miller set up Logan Schwartz’s game-winner in Saturday’s District 1 Class 4A quarterfinal win over Central Bucks East, 1-0. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

As the last wave in Zimmerman’s 20-man rotation plan, Miller and Schwartz delivered, the latter hammering home a beautifully taken goal in the 76th minute to see the top-seeded Pioneers over No. 9 Central Bucks East in a District 1 Class 4A quarterfinal grudge match.

Schwartz took Zimmerman’s “closing time” mantra to heart, and so Conestoga’s new beginning (and a fifth PIAA tournament berth in seven seasons) came from Central Bucks East’s beginning’s end.

There’s no love lost between two of the most successful teams around, a tantalizing matchup that popped off the page as soon as brackets were released. These teams decided the District 1 (then Class AAA) title last year and met in the PIAA semis, the Patriots winning both en route to a state crown and inflicting the only blemishes on Conestoga’s 2015 record. Some faces have changed, and Conestoga (20-0) is now the side lavished with national attention, but emotions were still rubbed raw Saturday.

“We got kicked out by them last year, and we needed to come back this year against them,” Conestoga defender Mike McCarthy said. “… It was definitely in the back of our minds.”

“I was a part of that, and I remember that we were their only two losses last year,” C.B. East defender Stephen Sheehan said. “If it wasn’t for us, they would’ve done what we did. And we knew coming in that they were going to want revenge. And we could tell out there, they knew who we were and what they wanted to do.”

The win moves Conestoga into Wednesday’s semifinals to take on No. 5 North Penn, which downed No. 4 Pennsbury, 2-1. C.B. East (13-5-3) slips into playbacks to vie for District 1’s fifth and final states berth.

With that emotional input and the obvious technical ability on display, it’s no surprise free space was hard to come by. Chris Donovan earned a rare glimpse of free acreage in the 76th down the right wing. He squared a cross-field ball that Miller filtered on to a vocal Schwartz. He took a touch inside to his right foot and struck a shot that nestled inside the post, one even East’s 6-foot-3 goalie Karl Bandlow couldn’t stretch to deny.

“I saw Chris beat a guy down the line, then played Mason at the top of the box,” Schwartz said. “He let it go, and I just yelled ‘let’ for Nick (Jennings) and Nick let it got, and I just hit it as hard as I could and hoped it went in.”

“It was a beautiful finish,” Miller said. “He was determined and he knew where he was going with it, so that helped him place it where he wanted.”

It took a moment of brilliance like Schwartz’s to fracture a stalemate wrought by punishing, cagey soccer on both sides, where few chances were generated from open play.

Conestoga's Mike McCarthy, right, battles for a ball with Abington's Juan Castillo Thursday. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

Conestoga’s Mike McCarthy, right, battles for a ball with Abington’s Juan Castillo Thursday. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

East, under the direction of former U.S. National Team player Jeremiah White (Haverford School), lamentably squandered several looks. Center back Will Eisold carved out a pair of open headers off set pieces that he couldn’t nod goalward. Sheehan delivered several tantalizing set-piece services, the best from 30 yards out in the 66th minute with a curler placed between Conestoga goalie Luke Smith and the onrushing crowd, but there were no takers.

The best chance, though, was spurned by Eric Quigley three minutes before Schwartz capitalized. Quigley did the hard work, shouldering off McCarthy and drawing Smith off his line on a sortie down the left channel. But his left-footed attempt steered wide, grazing the outside netting.

Conestoga’s Will Klein missed a similar attempt with his head in the first half, but the Pioneers’ opportunities were fewer and further between. They started to ramp up the pressure late, including a shot from platoon midfielder Jeff Charles that forced Bandlow into a save.

Conestoga’s win, a second consecutive 1-0 victory after banishing No. 17 Abington in Thursday’s second round, is a means to a larger, championship end to the season. But if you put aside the big-picture logic momentarily, it’s a particularly gratifying intermediate step.

“It was only a small step,” said McCarthy, espousing the long view. “I think we have bigger plans. We have bigger marks and goals this year.”

“Definitely, it’s a lot more special,” allowed Miller. “It’s very, very sweet, because they beat us twice last year.”

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