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Conestoga defense avoids Moore heartbreak against Garnet Valley

CONCORD >> Teams tend to relax when they’ve got a four-goal lead heading into the fourth quarter. Tuesday night, though, Conestoga had every reason to be testy even when it led host Garnet Valley in the District 1 Class 3A semifinal.

In the teams’ regular-season meeting, the Pioneers led the Jaguars by five goals going into the fourth quarter. All Garnet Valley did that night was score seven times in the final frame and win on a Jake Buttermore overtime tally.

So, yeah, you could excuse Conestoga for being on edge, especially when Jake D’Annunzio scored a few minutes into the final frame.

Everything after that, though, went the Pioneers’ way as they sealed up a 13-6 win over the Jaguars to move on to the district championship game Thursday. No. 3 Conestoga takes on No. 1 Avon Grove, a 10-9 winner over Central Bucks East, at a site and time to be determined. No. 2 Garnet Valley enters playbacks against the Patriots.

“I was definitely nervous,” Conestoga LSM Joey Walton said. “Our coach (Brody Bush) actually said to thank all of them, because they taught us so much about our team and what we need to do to win, so we do thank them for teaching us what we needed to do.”

Instead of yielding to the Jaguars (16-5), the Pioneers (18-3) simply raced past them. Conestoga outscored Garnet Valley 7-2 in the second half and 10-3 in the final three quarters.

Henry Berg led the charge with four goals and an assist. Tommy Sopko paired three assists with a pair of goals, and Drew Mullen and Cliff Madden each added two-goal, one-assist efforts.

Most impressively, though, was how Conestoga flipped the script on Garnet Valley’s explosive offense by clamping down on the Jaguars. Having No. 1 defenseman Jackson Niness, who only recently returned to the lineup after dealing with a shoulder injury all season, make his first start certainly didn’t hurt.

“We didn’t really switch up much,” Walton said. “We just played hard, we obviously had our matchups against (three-time All-Delco) Matt Moore. We put (Niness) on him and I think that helped a lot. We just played our game and we played hard.”

As is the custom with Moore, defensemen need to be graded on a scale against him. The University of Virginia signee still ended up with three assists and a pair of goals, but the Pioneers were able to prevent him from quarterbacking the offense to its usual excellent efficiency. D’Annunzio scored twice on Moore feeds, while Evan Trizonis and Hunter Baar also tallied.

“He always has his head up, and you never know when you’re going to get the ball,” Baar said of Moore. “You’re open even when you’re not, because he can just find you with the ball because he’s that great of a player.”

You’ve done well for yourself when teams are happy with limiting you to five points, but Garnet Valley couldn’t get much more going. When the Jaguars did get chances, goalie Scott MacMillan shut the door with eight saves.

“We just didn’t have the ball (because of) faceoffs,” Moore said. “It’s nothing on (Garnet Valley faceoff man) Rei (Lopez). It’s just that their wing play was ridiculous. They had long possessions, and right when we get it, we want to go to the net to catch up. We should have just run our offense one goal at a time and that’s what we should learn for the playoffs.”

With a state berth already in hand, the Jaguars will have their chance to learn. They just won’t play for a district championship like the Pioneers will.

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