It seemed fitting that Conestoga squeezed out a 1-0 win with a second-half goal in its PIAA Class AAAA state semifinal against North Allegheny Tuesday night at Chambersburg High School.
The battle-tested Pioneers (24-1) have made a habit this fall of winning razor-close games by scoring in the final minutes. Heading into the state quarterfinal, Conestoga had nine game-winning goals in the last 10 minutes of games or in overtime this season.
This time, the game-winner was by Nick Jennings, who headed the ball off a rebound into the net with 31:37 left.
“I was really excited when I saw the ball go in the net – for about 10 seconds,” said Jennings. “But then I realized we still had 30 minutes left to play.”
His goal culminated a rapid-fire succession of three shots at the North Allegheny net. The first two shots, by Jennings and Mason Miller, were stopped by point-blank saves by North Allegheny goalie Grant Glorioso.
Jennings said, “Logan [Schwartz] got the ball out wide left, I ran in behind the center back, and Logan crossed it. I headed it [the first time] and hit the ground, and the ball didn’t go in. When I got up, the ball was heading toward me, and I hit it in.”
What made this victory particularly sweet was that, last fall, Conestoga lost in the PIAA state semifinal.
“We were definitely motivated by last year’s [state semifinal] loss, and we still are,” said Jennings. “When the game ended, my first thought was chocolate – we’re going to Hershey. Then, after our post-game huddle, assistant coach Blake Stabert tossed Hershey bars in the air for all of us to catch, and everybody got one.”
Conestoga head coach David Zimmerman, asked about the Pioneers’ season-long habit of scoring game-winners in the final minutes, referred to the Pioneers’ experience – both in the post-season, and in tight games.
“We had a long post-season run last year, and this year, we’ve played – and won – a lot of tight games during the regular season,” said Zimmerman. “Three times we’ve trailed in games, and come back to win. So when we get into a tight game, it’s like, ‘Been there, done that.’”
The Conestoga coach also pointed out that Tuesday night’s win was the 25th post-season game in the Conestoga careers of each of the trio known as the “Three Amigos” – senior defender Gabe Harms, senior forward Mason Miller and senior midfielder Blaise Milanek.
Conestoga will face Elizabethtown (22-4-1), the second seed from District 3, at Hershey Stadium Saturday at 6:30 p.m. in the PIAA state championship final. Elizabethtown defeated West Chester Henderson in penalty kicks in the other state semifinal Tuesday, its second straight win by PKs. Henderson handed Conestoga its only loss of the season in the PIAA District One final, and earlier in the season, the Pioneers defeated the Warriors 2-1.
“We’re a lot more familiar with Henderson than Elizabethtown, but we’ll have a few days to do some research on [Elizabethtown],” said Zimmerman. “I know they’ve been winning in overtime, and they have momentum – it would be a mistake to underestimate them.”
The Pioneers didn’t underestimate North Allegheny, the District 7 champions. Conestoga departed Berwyn at 2 p.m. Tuesday, and reached Chambersburg at around 4:30 p.m., which gave them plenty of time to warm up and get acclimated. The warmed-up Pioneers made nine shots on goal in the first half.
“I thought we played better than [North Allegheny] in the first half, but I thought they played better than us in the second,” said Zimmerman. “Our defense played well tonight, particularly center back Will Klein. And [gaolie] Luke Smith played well, did a good jub managing the box and made some solid saves.”