Berwyn – Conestoga High School juniors Nick Jennings and Chris Donovan had been there before – in a tight game with the outcome still hanging in the balance and their club needing a big play.
The only difference this time (Nov. 19) was that a PIAA Class AAAA state championship was on the line. Lodged in another tough match, the Pioneers broke the halftime huddle against Elizabethtown, the second place finisher from District Three, with a sense of calm knowing the task at hand.
With time winding down and a driving sleet continuing to fall at Hersheypark Stadium, Jennings and Donovan did what they have done many times. They combined to score the eventual game-winning goal with 18:48 remaining in regulation.
“Definitely Saturday [Nov. 19] is probably the one I am going to remember the most,” said Jennings, who led the team in assists this season. “[Chris and I have] combined for many goals, but not any has been as memorable as Saturday night and I don’t think either of us are ever going to forget that moment.”
Donovan, who led the team in scoring, said, “To date it’s definitely the biggest game we played in and the only way I could possibly see anything bigger is if we make it to Nationals with our club team.”
The game-winning play began when Jennings stripped an Elizabethtown attacker around midfield. Jennings dribbled downfield before playing the ball to teammate Rodrigo Martinez just outside the box at the 18-yard line. Martinez played the ball back to Jennings, who slotted the ball off the outside of his foot into the box to a waiting Donovan. From there, Donovan brought ball the ball down and slotted the ball past the keeper to give his team the lead.
“I was trying to create space between me and my defender and create an angle for Nick to pass,” said Donovan. “Before the game all I was thinking if I scored I need to hug my teammates on the sideline because even the guys who don’t have a chance to play are still great players and help us get better in practice and I just wanted to hug those guys because they benefit the team whether they are on the pitch or not.”
Jennings said, “It was pure excitement at that point. The atmosphere at Hershey was crazy. We had so many fans and they had so many fans. He (Chris) ran over to the bench and we all followed him but as soon as we were running back to midfield and get ready for the tap, we had to lock down for the rest of the game. When I saw the ball hit the back of the net I was so happy, we were so happy, but then as soon as we were running back we had to get focused again to make sure we wouldn’t concede.”
Jennings and Donovan first became teammates a year after they started playing travel soccer for the U9 Tredyffrin-Easttown Youth Soccer Association (TEYSA) squad that changed to FC Europa at U11. At U15 his whole team and coach switched clubs and joined FC Montco. Their team name is Die Mannschaft, currently ranked No. 1 in the state (third in the nation) by Got Soccer.
Logan Schwartz, Nino Mauro and Michael McCarthy have been teammates of Donovan and Jennings since they were young, with Rodrigo Martinez joining the club team this season.
Conestoga boys’ soccer head coach Dave Zimmerman said, “Anytime you have players who have played together for years and years on a club team, it’s always going to make for better play. It’s inevitable that those players are going to have a level of chemistry you can’t just get from practicing one season in the fall. I think particularly those guys (that group of Montco players) have tremendous chemistry and you if look at our attacking group – Nick played up top; Logan Schwartz, Chris Donovan and Nino Mauro would all play in the attack together so I think they had very good sense of communication. There were many times on direct kicks where it was just eye contact and there was no signals needed to run the play. You could look at each other and know what play to run.”
While having many players who are teammates on various club teams can certainly be advantageous, their true test of character is the way they bond on and off the field as one unit.
“We have been fortunate to have senior classes and groups of players who are very welcoming and understand that integrating younger players into our team and system is beneficial for everyone,” said Zimmerman. “It’s not always been that way and sometimes you get cliques of players and the seniors don’t talk to the younger players or acknowledge them but recently we have not had that problem. In terms of team chemistry, we really do have a group of guys that not only play well together on the field but genuinely like each other off the field and get along.”