Lower Merion >> For a high school soccer fan, you could not ask for anything better. The top two teams in the Central League — Conestoga and Lower Merion — squaring off in the final regular-season league contest with the league title on the line.
With neither team having a blemish on their Central League record, the match featured two teams with a balanced offensive attack anchored by a strong defensive third.
When the final horn sounded, it was Conestoga taking advantage of two throw-ins to emerge with the hard-fought 2-0 win and its fourth consecutive Central League title.
“We realize every time we play Lower Merion it will be a tough match,” said Conestoga head coach Dave Zimmerman. “They have proven themselves to be a good team year after year and this year is no different. They have a narrow field that [Lower Merion head coach] Nico Severini uses to his advantage. I was just pleased that our team executed our game plan we discussed.”
“It means a lot to get the win today,” said Conestoga senior defender Michael McCarthy. “It’s not very often you get the top two teams in the Central League to play the last league game of the season. It’s something special that we will always remember.”
“Today was an even game that could have gone either way,” said Severini. “They executed two throw-ins on us, which was the difference. Today’s match featured two good teams playing an important match, and it was fun to see good soccer from both squads. Conestoga is a solid team that deserved to win.”
With the match still scoreless after both teams had early opportunities, the Pioneers took advantage of a throw in when senior forward Nino Mauro came in on the weak side, following the play in case it came far post. With Rodrigo Martinez in perfect position to deflect the header, the ball skipped under his foot toward the far post, where an unguarded Mauro happened to be to tap the ball into the net for the first goal of the match with 16:57 remaining.
“It’s always been our objective to run towards the far post in case the ball ended up getting through the crease,” said Mauro. “I saw an opportunity and was fortunate to capitalize.”
Just under 10 minutes later, the Pioneers added an insurance tally when junior forward Jake Silverstein put home a rebound off a Nate Xu shot.
Holding a 2-0 lead, Conestoga showed their strength in the back third, led by senior Michael McCarthy, who seemed to be in the right spot to either slow down a Lower Merion attack or a counter attack following a steal in the midfield.
“He (Michael McCarthy) is indispensable,” Zimmerman said. “We have a handful of players we cannot afford to lose and he is one of them. He has incredible skill and is a tremendous leader.”
“Our defense has been strong all season,” said Mauro. “We know that defense wins titles and attack wins games.”
Lower Merion had plenty of opportunities but were just not able to convert. With a chance to cut the deficit in half, Lower Merion junior Isaac Brainsky hit the crossbar on a set piece.
With the regular season coming to a close, both teams will now begin to turn their focus towards the postseason. According to the latest standings on the District One website, both teams are in prime position to secure a first round bye for the tournament that begins next Tuesday.
“For us, the days leading up to the start of District One playoffs are about getting back to basics,” said Zimmerman. “We will use our practice time to reinforce the principles that underlie our philosophy of play. Hopefully, this will put everyone on the same page as we head into the most exciting time of the year.”
Severini added, “Every match is important and we have to create opportunities to put the ball in the back of the net. Solidify what we need to do defensively in preparation of our upcoming non-league match and playoff matches.”
Conestoga 2, Lower Merion 0
Conestoga 2 0 – 2
Lower Merion 0 0 – 0
Conestoga goals: Mauro, Silverstein.
Goalie saves: Smith (CO) 5, Connelly (LM) 7