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Unlikely hero Palermo sparks Strath Haven’s upset of Springfield

Strath Haven’s Ethan Belville, left, and Nicky Palermo celebrate Belville’s goal in the second quarter of Saturday’s PIAA Class 2A quarterfinal victory over Springfield. Palermo provided the spark with three early goals as the Panthers brought Springfield’s two-year reign as state champs to an end. (Pete Bannan/For Digital First Media)

WEST CHESTER >> With a little self-deprecation, Nicky Palermo absorbs the question in stride.

The junior will admit that he isn’t the most likely member of Strath Haven’s midfield to ignite his squad in a PIAA quarterfinal via three first-quarter goals. He isn’t the one you might peg to have a hand in more goals in the first half of a game against Central League rival Springfield than senior blue-chipper Jeff Conner.

“Usually it’s a good time when I finish, because I don’t usually finish that well,” Palermo said. “Everyone gets pretty excited, and it’s just a good day.”

Palermo was the first wave of Panthers ensuring Saturday was a good day, his early spurt and a late defensive stand helping Strath Haven upend two-time reigning state champ Springfield, 12-9, in the quarterfinals of the PIAA Class 2A tournament.

Strath Haven’s Jeff Conner, 26, fires a shot past Springfield goalie Jimmy Donegan Saturday. Conner scored three times in a 12-9 win for the Panthers in the PIAA Class 2A quarterfinals. (Pete Bannan/Digital First Media)

Palermo provided the answer that has dogged District 1 third seed Strath Haven (18-5) all season. Conner, the University of Virginia-bound midfielder, would lead the way; indeed he provided three goals and an assist against Springfield to nudge his season points tally into the rarefied air of the upper-140s. But how the others would respond when defenses keyed on Conner has been a sticking point.

Not so with a season on the line. Palermo got Haven going out of the gates with three goals in the first 5:05. Ethan Belville scored three times in the first half.

Conner still punctuated the Panthers’ runs — two unassisted goals in the second quarter to build a 10-3 edge at the break that proved insurmountable, then the capper with 1:21 to play to ice the victory. But from an attacking perspective, it was very much a team effort, one that sends them into Tuesday’s semifinals against District 7 champ Mars Area, a 13-6 winner over District 3 runnerup Palmyra, at a site and time to be determined.

“Coming into this season, there were many players — Ethan Belville, Nicky — we have a couple of midfielders that didn’t really play at all last year or score any goals,” Conner said. “Coming into this season, we just had to get their confidence level up, and later in the season, they’re producing and doing exactly what we need them to do.”

“When all our other guys can step up and put it in the back of the net, we know that the other team could be in for a long game,” senior defender Ryan Morris said. “If just everyone does their part, we’ll be fine.”

The early cushion from that rampant first half gave the Panthers’ defense space to work. And they achieved what Springfield (17-4) has made a name doing over its two state title runs: Making opponents look very unlike themselves.

The Cougars were uncharacteristically sloppy with passes. They went 0-for-4 on the man-advantage. They had a goal called back for an illegal screen early in the second half. They were outshot, 22-7, in the first, with Haven’s Hunter Clements winning 11 of 15 draws.

PHOTO GALLERY: Strath Haven vs. Springfield

Even when Springfield created potential momentum-turning moments — 10 saves by Jimmy Donegan in goal, including five on Conner, or a big hit by Geo Dotsicas early in the second half — it couldn’t sustain it.

Instead, Strath Haven tallied more moments of consequence. Vincey Palermo, who made eight saves in the second half, turned in one in the final minute of the third quarter, denying Jack Clark on a low bounce on a man-up, then outleting to Nicky Palermo to find Liam Carney, who spotted Chris Rosini for a goal.

In that ability to keep the second half under control, Strath Haven channeled recent experience, of sorts. The Panthers booked their ticket to states by recouping a seven-goal deficit in the District 1 playback final against Radnor. Saturday, they put themselves on the other side of the equation and knew what to expect.

“Right at halftime, we said, ‘there’s a whole lot of game left. It’s 0-0 right now,’” Morris said. “So what we did in the first half really doesn’t matter. We’ve been on the other end of that comeback, so we can’t let that happen to us.”

Strath Haven’s Ryan Morris, right, tries to clear the ball under pressure from Springfield’s Kyle Long Saturday in the PIAA Class 2A quarterfinals, a 12-9 win for Strath Haven. (Pete Bannan/Digital First Media)

“We just needed a momentum change,” Springfield midfielder Jack Spence said. “We got that with Geo’s big hit to start the second half. That’s when things started turning our way, it was just too late.”

Mike Tulskie had all three Springfield goals in the first half, then set up one of Ben Garcia’s two second-half markers. Kyle Long added two goals and three assists.

Long’s solo sortie inched Springfield within 10-6 with 4:47 to play in the third, but Rosini’s goal provided a five-goal lead to work with in the fourth. Markers by Garcia and Long 16 seconds apart dragged Springfield within 11-9 with 4:51 left, but two late Palermo saves and three turnovers by the Cougars set up Conner’s clincher.

The fourth-quarter defensive resilience stemmed from the same source as the early offensive outburst, and that ability to grow this season is why the Panthers are moving on.

“In the beginning of the season, as a defense, we would get on each other after we gave up goals, and we kind of fell apart,” Morris said. “These playoffs started and we kind of wanted to make a mental note that if we made a mistake, just move on from the play together. That happened a couple of times in the second half, right out of the gate. So we just wanted to stay together and play our game and not let them get the best of us.”

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