Tredyffrin – Conestoga, heading into PIAA Class AAAA boys’ soccer state championship final with a sparkling 24-1 record, is preparing for a stiff challenge when it faces Elizabethtown Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at Hersheypark Stadium.
Elizabethtown (22-4-1), the District 3 runnerup, has been something of a team of destiny to this point. The Bears reached the District 3 championship final for the first time ever, got their first-ever state tournament win Nov. 8, then followed that up with victories by penalty kick against District One fourth-place finisher Council Rock North and District One champion West Chester Henderson.
Henderson, the only team to pin a loss on the Pioneers (in the District One finals), had a 12-1 edge on Elizabethtown in shots on goal, and a 12-1 differential in corner shots. But they couldn’t put away the Bears, as Elizabethtown junior goalie Austin Denlinger made more than a dozen saves, some of them highlight-film quality.
“We don’t want to underestimate Elizabethtown,” said Conestoga head coach David Zimmerman. “This is going to be like a home game for them. They’re only 10 minutes from Hershey, with maybe 1,000 fans coming out and a big band (200 members) as well. If their fans turn out, a big crowd can energize a team.”
Elizabethtown is led by head coach James Sostack, who in 23 years at the helm has posted more than 200 wins and led the Bears to 19 appearances in the District 3 tournament. On offense, midfielder Braden Kreider and junior forwards Adan Cabrera-Perez and David Shank have been productive.
The Bears are 5-0 this post-season in games that have gone to overtime or PKs, an interesting statistic for a team that regularly rotates just three players off the bench,
Of course, the Pioneers are pretty good late in the game too. Conestoga has scored nine game-winning goals in the last 10 minutes of games or in overtime this season.
This is the third time Conestoga has appeared in the PIAA state finals. In 1988, the Pioneers beat Lower Merion to earn their first state title; and in 2011, Conestoga edged Upper St. Clair, 1-0, on a second-half goal by T-Ben Donnie to win another state crown.
Zimmerman coached the 2011 PIAA state champion team, and remembers the riveting state championship final against St. Clair very well.
“T-Ben scored his goal about one minute into the second half, and at the time I remember thinking, ‘Now we’ve got to hold the lead for the next 39 minutes,’” said Zimmerman. “It was a real nail-biter.”
Conestoga junior Nick Jennings, who scored the game-winning goal in the state semifinal against North Allegheny Tuesday, was in attendance at the 2011 state championship final at Hersheypark Stadium, as a sixth-grade student and fan.
“It was a great atmosphere,” said Jennings. “I remember the game being played under the lights, T-Ben Donnie scoring the game-winning goal, and the big Hershey bar they brought out at the end of the game.
“This game [Saturday] is huge for us. It’s something we’ve been working for since mid-August. On Saturday, we want to leave it on the field for 80 minutes.”
Saturday’s game will be particularly meaningful for the Conestoga senior trio known as the “Three Amigos” – defender Gabe Harms (an Ohio State commit), forward Mason Miller (Colgate) and midfielder Blaise Milanek (Lehigh). The Pioneers’ state semifinal win Tuesday was the 25th post-season game in a Conestoga uniform for each of them.
Milanek said, “It really means something to me that I get to play with these guys – the whole team – for another couple of days.”
The Pioneers’ 1-0 win against North Allegheny Tuesday in Chambersburg was particularly sweet, as Conestoga lost in the state semifinal last fall.
“Seeing Nick Jennings score that goal was awesome, and when the game was over, all the memories came back from [the state semifinal loss] last year,” said Milanek. “The state final will be closer to home [than Chambersburg], and I’m hoping a lot more of our fans will come out to the game and support us.”
Jennings said, “There’s been a lot of positivity the last couple of days at school since the state semifinal game. Teachers and other students have been coming up to us, wishing us well. It’s been uplifting in the classroom.
“On Saturday, we’ll stick to what we’ve done during the season, and stay calm.”