EXETER >> It was quite a warm-up Austin Denlinger got Tuesday.
Elizabethtown’s junior goalkeeper made a total of 11 stops — some of them of highlight-film quality — during the 110 combined minutes of regulation and overtime play in a PIAA Class AAAA playoff semifinal with West Chester Henderson. So when the game came down to penalty kicks, Denlinger was ready.
Denlinger ended up touched for the only two kicks the Warriors were able to get past him all night, in the PK phase. But more importantly, he made a pair of critical blocks while his Elizabethtown teammates were perfect on their four tries in PKs to stun District 1 champion Henderson, 0-0 (4-2 on penalty kicks), at Exeter High School to reach the state title game.
“Coach works with me a lot in practice,” he said after securing the Bears’ qualification for Saturday’s state-championship game. “That paid off.”
Denlinger’s first block came on Henderson’s second penalty kick, after both teams made their first tries. The Bears went up 3-2 after three rounds, and after Denlinger blocked the Warriors’ second try, they sewed up the hard-fought victory with Braden Kreider’s connection for a 4-2 score in the tiebreaking phase.
“We’re fortunate to have a good goalkeeper,” Elizabethtown head coach James Sostack said while his players were celebrating their first state-title qualification in their coach’s 23-year tenure. “Austin is on fire when it comes to penalty kicks.”
The loss in PKs was particularly devastating for Henderson (22-2-1), which came into the semifinal ranked third in Pennsylvania and 26th nationally. Making it even more devastating was how the Warriors dominated the statistics in regulation and OT: A 12-1 edge in shots on goal, and a whopping 12-1 differential in corner shots.
“I thought we played a hell of a game,” Henderson head coach Sean Ryan said. “We created a lot of chances.”
But the eight shots they got off during regulation — those that Denlinger didn’t stop — hit off the football goal post or the goal-cage uprights. And the E-town defense provided an equally-yeoman effort on the corners, clearing the ball away from the net time and time again.
“Their keeper had a hell of a night,” Ryan said. “Sometimes, that’s just the way the game goes. Penalty kicks … they’re pretty much a coin flip.”
Frank DeRosa gave Henderson first blood in the PKs, getting the ball past Denlinger. David Shank pulled the Bears even on their first try, getting it past the Warriors’ Brady McSwain.
In the second round, Denlinger got the stop on Zach Roberts. The teams exchanged converted kicks in the third, Aiden McFadden for Henderson and Aiden Grey Fertich for Elizabethtown.
The fourth round saw Charlie Collins’ kick stopped by Denlinger. Kreider then followed with the clincher.
“This is the third time we’ve had a game in penalty kicks,” Denlinger noted. “Those first two games were a benefit to us.”
Henderson’s defense was every bit the equal of E-town’s on the night. McSwain wasn’t required to make any saves prior to the PK segment, complementing an offense that kept the action at the Bears’ end of the field for long periods of the game.
“In the long run, it was a hell of a year for us,” Ryan said of his District 1-AAAA championship club. “It’s a disappointment, this way it ended.”
In the meantime, Elizabethtown (22-4-1) will face Conestoga 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Hersheypark Stadium. The Pioneers, who finished second to Henderson in the District 1 playoffs, advanced with a 1-0 win over North Allegheny in the bracket’s other semifinal.
“I’m glad to have these guys going with me,” Denlinger said.
NOTES >> During the penalty kicks, Sostack faced away from the west-side goal where the action was being staged, Down on one knee and with eyes closed, he appeared in a posture of praying. “I did some praying there,” he said with a laugh. “It’s also superstition.” … This year’s state semifinal was Henderson’s furthest advance in the state tournament to date. “The last 12 years, we’ve been so tough,” he said. “The kids poured all into this.”