Tredyffrin >> Conestoga is making a spirited defense of its 2016 PIAA 4A state boys’ soccer title with a defense that has allowed only two goals in the post-season this fall – both on penalty kicks.
That airtight defense particularly came in handy last Saturday in the Pioneers’ 1-0 state quarterfinal win against District 11 champion Parkland, a team that many thought would be Conestoga’s toughest foe in the PIAA 4A state tournament. Saturday was the first time this season that the Pioneers (23-0-1) were held to one goal.
Minutes after the win against Parkland, Conestoga head coach David Zimmerman said, “Defense wins championships, and even though that’s a cliché, there’s a reason it’s a cliché. I have to give credit to Logan Schwartz, who we put in at center back at mid-season, and our defense has been rock-solid ever since.”
Two days later, following the Pioneers’ practice session under gloomy, drizzly skies Monday, Zimmerman reflected further on Conestoga’s defense.
“The win against Parkland was one of the best games we played all year,” said Zimmerman. “When we’re playing well, we’re hard to beat, and we kept the pressure on Parkland. Mike McCarthy and Logan Schwartz were able to contain their big goal scorer, [senior forward] Joshua Kiser.”
Schwartz said, “Mike McCarthy and I have been playing together for years, so the chemistry on our defense has been really good.”
Not only have McCarthy and Schwartz been playing together at Conestoga, but they’ve also been teammates on the FC Montco club team for many years, along with fellow Pioneers Chris Donovan, Nick Jennings and Chris Mauro (Rodrigo Martinez joined them last year).
Conestoga goalie Luke Smith reflected on the defensive unit’s excellence following the Pioneers’ 3-0 win against Council Rock North in the District 1 championship final.
“Our back five has really played as a unit,” said Smith. “With guys like Andrew Castleman, Jason Ivey, Logan Schwartz, Jack Murphy and Mike McCarthy in the back line, I don’t get many chances [at saves].
Smith did get to play the hero Saturday with a last-ditch save with two seconds left to preserve the Pioneers’ 1-0 win.
Smith said, “Parkland played the ball out wide, and they put it in to one of their players in the middle who wasn’t marked, and with a couple of seconds left, he put it to my left side, and I just reached out with my hand and saved it. … I think just before the Parkland game someone told me that they were the favorites to win the state tournament. I think that sort of drove some of our players to play the way they did, with a vengeance.”
Donovan, who scored the game’s only goal late in the second half, has carried the Pioneers’ scoring load in the post-season. The Central League’s Most Valuable Player tallied all seven of the Pioneers’ goals in their final three district playoff games, and has scored two of their three goals in the PIAA state tourney so far.
“I didn’t have my best finishing game Saturday,” said Donovan. “Parkland had a really good goalkeeper [Jacob Varrato, who had nine saves], but I had to keep trying to get through.”
Once Donovan scored, the Conestoga defense did the rest.
“In the final few seconds of the game, I had a really good angle to see Luke’s save,” said Donovan. “As soon as the game was over, I ran straight to Luke, because that saved the game for us.”
Tuesday, Conestoga faces Central Bucks West (18-6), a team in the PIAA state tournament for the first time in 35 years, and the fourth-place finisher in the District One tournament.
CB West edged LaSalle 1-0 in the state opener, then defeated Cumberland Valley on penalty kicks in the quarterfinal after a double-overtime scoreless tie. In the District 1 quarterfinal, Central Bucks West defeated No. 2 seed Lower Merion 1-0, then lost to Council Rock North 1-0 in the district semifinal.
Key players for CB West include junior goalie Dylan Smith, senior central midfielder Tarin Morris and senior center back CJ Lang. Morris and Lang are the only two senior starters for the Bucks.
Zimmerman said, “They’re a relatively young team, and given their relative youth, to have come this far in the state tournament, that’s impressive. Defensively, they’re very solid and they’ve got a good keeper. They’re extremely difficult to score on. I expect this to be a low-scoring, grind-it-out, tough game.”
Schwartz said, “Obviously, our defense is good and that’s been a factor as to why we’ve been succeeding so much, but I think our mindset going into the game is the most important thing – just setting the tempo early, getting in the zone, not thinking ahead [to the state final] – just focusing on CB West.”
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