HERSHEY — Late in the second half of the PIAA Class 3A boys soccer final Friday night, Strath Haven conjured a great look at the West Allegheny goal. Jacob Zweier collected the ball at the 18, faked one way, then turned and rifled a shot. The attempt had Braden Wurst at full stretch, and the Indians’ keeper tipped it onto the crossbar. The ball glanced away.
Down three goals at that point, if the Panthers had any doubt it wasn’t going to be their night, that doubt was now gone. Their wild ride to the state championship, one that included a two-goal comeback in the semifinals and an overtime victory in the first round, ended at HersheyPark Stadium in a 4-0 loss to West Allegheny. It was the Pittsburgh-area school’s first state title.
Strath Haven’s misfortune wasn’t limited to the crossbar. The Panthers were without starting defender Harris Hardy, who left the semifinal game against Archbishop Wood with a concussion. Midway through the first half, center midfielder Emmet Young came out of a challenge with an injured leg. He was helped off the field and eventually left the stadium in ambulance. Not too long after halftime, Gavin Birch took the worst of a 50-50 ball, and he also wouldn’t return to action.
The situation meant that Haven was down three starters and, with 32:05 to play, three goals.
“I thought we started off well,” midfielder Andrew Lowman said. “We kind of teetered off toward the middle of the game. A couple of tough calls went against us, and we had to battle back.”
Indeed, the most important referee decisions came at the Panthers’ expense. The first came 20:39 into the game, when Zweier went in hard on a slide tackle. He won the ball but cleaned out Jaxon Ervin in the process. The official deemed it “reckless,” carded Zweier and spotted the Indians a free kick in a dangerous area. Nathan Dragisich delivered a cross to the six where Antonio Fiorfilino headed the ball home.
Some 15 minutes later, Dragisich doubled the lead with some quick thinking. He curled one in from 30-plus yards when Haven was unsettled following a foul.
“The free kick was called. I saw the goalie and the defenders arguing with the ref, and the net was wide open,” Dragisich said. “I sprinted up to the ball, and I knew I had a chance to put it in. And I did.”
WA strikes first! Antonio Fiordillino the header off a very soft call on Jake Zweier. 1-0 in the 21st. pic.twitter.com/ASiAGDAJId
— Matthew De George (@sportsdoctormd) November 17, 2018
It wasn’t his first attempt at the move in his scholastic career, but it was his first successful one. And it told the story of the match. If the Panthers were somewhat unlucky, West Allegheny capitalized on its opportunities.
For the game, the Indians put nine shots on target to Haven’s four, although Zweier’s chance was the only one that really troubled Wurst. On the other side, Noah (16-7-2) Atsaves did all he could to keep the opponents at bay. He parried a Fletcher Amos scissor kick over the cross bar when the score was still 1-0. Atsaves stoned Amos again at the 38:45 mark of the second half. But while the goalkeeper stayed strong, the Panthers’ vaunted offense couldn’t get going.
The Panthers were shut out for the first time all season. Even Nate Perrins, he of 15 postseason goals, struggled to influence things in the attack.
“It was just one of those nights. Soccer is a cruel sport,” Haven coach Ryan O’Neill said. “(Perrins) helped create some of the early chances. We just didn’t capitalize. At a certain point, it was like, we had to push him back a little bit.”
When the Panthers did push the ball forward, West Allegheny (23-2) won it back and broke into space.
“They played very much on the counterattack,” Dragisich explained. “Doing that, they opened up a lot for us. Out on the wings, we had a lot of space, so we tried to find that as soon as possible and as much as possible.”
Amos led one such break after a Haven free kick was cleared away. He eventually cut into the Panthers’ penalty area where Vincent Palermo fouled him. Haven didn’t like the call. Dragisich buried the ensuing spot kick eight minutes into the second half.
Dragisich added his third with 12:12 to play, completing a terrific hat trick.
“They’re great players, man. Hats off to them,” Lowman said. “They’re good on the ball. They move well.”
Only a sophomore, Lowman is one of a handful of underclassmen who saw game action in the final. A special word should go to junior defender John Holstein, who filled in admirably for Hardy, winning tackles and clearing danger.
“Experience,” Lowman said when asked what he’ll take away from the defeat. “Especially in this game, when things don’t go your way, you have to battle back. (In the) semifinal game, throughout this whole year we did a great job of that.”
O’Neill, a Haven soccer lifer, will remember something else.
“The support we’ve gathered. The way we’ve fought back every time,” O’Neill said. “We’re down four goals, and they’re not giving up. The boys themselves, just coming together for a common goal and playing great soccer. Coming on the bus today, it was great. To step out of our school today, and to have almost the entire school in the back, cheering us on … what they’ve created is history.”
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