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Difference-maker Lee leads Radnor to state semis

Radnor defender Josh Savadove, left, and goalie Henry Cooke, seen after the District 1 Class 4A second round last month, had another win to celebrate in the PIAA quarterfinals Saturday, a 2-1 victory over State College. (Pete Bannan/Digital First Media)
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SOUTH LEBANON TWP. – When Ben Vollmer burst past Jake Lee, received a feed in full sprint and buried the shot in the back of the net, Lee felt he had some atoning to do.

Not two minutes later, the Radnor junior had accomplished just that with a goal of his own. The center midfielder’s Saturday was a microcosm of what many of the Red Raiders have done all season.

Radnor adjusted on the fly – to a blustery crosswind, to a State College team that struck first, to a full second half of defending – to notch a 2-1 win in the quarterfinals of the PIAA Class 4A tournament at Cedar Crest High School. The Raiders’ reward is a semifinal berth against District 7 champion Seneca Valley, which ousted Abington, 1-0, Saturday. Site and time are to be determined.

It’s the third time the Raiders, the fifth seed from District 1, have faced a district champ in states, eliminating District 3’s Cumberland Valley before taking down District 6’s Lions. As it has so often this postseason, Radnor found itself facing a deficit when Vollmer charged in past a stumbling Lee and latched onto a flashing through ball from right winger Marc Rodgers. Vollmer took a touch to wrong-foot a defender and lashed a shot to the far post that beat goalie Nate Congleton in the 14th minute.

“After that goal, I knew I slipped up there,” Lee said. “So I knew I had to get a goal back for us and get our energy back and get life for our team again.”

That Lee was in central midfield at all is a testament to his adaptability. He started the season at outside back, but the Raiders (19-3-2) have adjusted their core formation time and again. Ben Verbofsky has settled in at right back after stints in midfield. Bobby Kirsch hit the sidelines two weeks ago with an injury.

That’s why Lee, not the aerial presence that Kirsh or 6-foot-4 midfield mate Eliot Hays is, found himself in the six-yard box in the 15th as Bobby Hyrisko’s long throw rode the wind into a dangerous spot. Lee rose to nod it home cleanly, leveling the score 1:52 later.

With Hayes, Hydrisko and center back Bennett Mueller, the majority of Radnor’s goals this postseason have arrived via set piece. That’s not exactly the niche filled by diminutive midfielder David Azzarano, a creative player more comfortable with the ball at his feet than in among the trees. But Azzarano put his stamp on one of those set pieces in the 37th minute.

A corner kick had been cleared, one in which the Radnor bench exhorted Azzarano to fill the vacant space at the far post. So when Hydrisko’s ensuing long throw got a gusty assist, Azzarano heeded the advice, finding a pocket of green to his lonesome to plant a perfectly-placed header, rising just above goalie James Hook.

“I was like, OK, and I walked to the back post,” Azzarano said. “And then the ball came right to the back post. It was pretty much coach’s goal.”

That left only one more adjustment in trying to see out a one-goal edge. Starting forward Jackson Birtwistle came off at halftime after being kicked in the shin. He wouldn’t return. That left a pair of deputies in Charlie Bernicker and Seamus Kennedy to execute the high-pressing style and hold-up play called for from a center forward. They didn’t threaten for goals, but they emptied their tanks and made the Lions’ comeback attempts more difficult at every turn.

“It’s huge when you can give your starters a rest and have some guy come in and sprint around for you and pressure the defense,” Azzarano said. “It takes pressure of the rest of our team.”

Nate Congleton and Henry Cooke made three saves each in goal. Cooke’s best effort came in the 75th when Alex Mikula tried to sneak a shot past him on the short side off a Vollmer through ball, but Cooke tipped it into the side netting. The State College fans, on the far side of the field, saw the net ripple and thought it an equalizer, but it wasn’t to be.

All that remained was five more minutes of long-ball clearances, and the game ended with the ball at Lee’s feet as he sprinted jubilantly toward his bench, one whose team-first approach he appreciates more than most.

“We have a lot of versatile players on our team,” Lee said. “I just try to be one of them, get out there and try to make a difference.”

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