Conestoga revels in feeling of first state title since 2011, tops Elizabethtown in PIAA final
HERSHEY >> As the final seconds ticked off in Conestoga’s 1-0 win against Elizabethtown for the PIAA Class AAAA boys’ soccer state championship Saturday at Hersheypark Stadium, the Pioneers (25-1) reveled in the feeling of their first state title since 2011.
Conestoga senior midfielder Blaise Milanek said, “All my emotions started kicking in. I realized all the hard work we did the entire year, since last August, had paid off. All the memories from last year [losing in the state semifinal] came flooding back, and I realized this time we won it all. It’s beautiful.”
Pioneer junior forward Chris Donovan, who scored the game-winning goal with 18:48 left in the game, said while holding a large Hershey bar, “I was astonished, overwhelmed, when I realized we had just taken the biggest prize we could win.”
Conestoga senior defender Gabe Harms, who couldn’t stop smiling, said, “My first thought when the game was over was that we achieved the goal I set for myself when I walked into Conestoga High School my freshman year. And to win this title in front of 3,000 fans is the best feeling in the world – it makes you feel like a professional soccer player.”
Pioneer senior midfielder Mason Miller said, “My first thought was just reminiscing [about my Conestoga soccer career]. I’m just taking in the moment.”
This was the third state title for Conestoga, who also won it in 1988 and 2011, the latter one under current head coach David Zimmerman. This year’s team had a trio of players – Milanek, Miller and Harms, known by their teammates as “The Three Amigos” – each of whom had played at least two dozen post-season games in a Conestoga uniform.
Zimmerman said, “When the game ended, I felt tremendous relief. The first day after our tryouts, we set a goal for ourselves to win the state title. This isn’t something I normally do. And it’s tough when there’s high expectations, there’s a lot of [self-imposed] pressure to live up to them.”
Conestoga pretty much dominated possession against Elizabethtown (22-5-1) Saturday evening, keeping the ball deep in Bears’ territory much of the game, including the last couple of minutes. And they made numerous shots on goal, and Elizabethtown junior goalie Austin Denlinger, who made more than a dozen saves in the Bears’ riveting state semifinal win, stopped 13 Conestoga shots Saturday evening. But Donovan’s shot got by him in the second half, and it was all the Pioneers needed.
Conestoga junior defender Nick Jennings, who assisted on Donovan’s goal, said, “I brought the ball up the left side of the field, tried to get the ball in the box, and I saw Chris open. When I saw Chris take it down into the left corner of the goal, I felt so excited, I felt the adrenalin rushing through my body. And to do it in this atmosphere [in front of all the fans at Hersheypark Stadium] was awesome.”
Donovan said, “When Nick gave the ball to me, I saw an opening, and knocked it in. When I saw the ball go in the net, I just wanted to go over and hug all of my teammates.”
The wet, snowy conditions Saturday evening at Hersheypark Stadium presented a challenge for both teams. Earlier in the day, the temperature was a balmy 65 degrees, and the sun shone brightly. But by game time, a cold front had swept through the area, the temperature dropped 30 degrees in just a couple of hours, and a combination of rain and wet snow was falling, and the wet snow stuck to the artificial turf.
Miller said, “I thought the ball would skip on the turf, but it turned out the snow slowed the ball down, and we were able to play it pretty well.”
Harms said, “I thought the ball was going to slide a lot tonight, but it didn’t. And we played good enough on [the turf] to win the state championship.”
Elizabethtown, which had never even won a state playoff game prior to this fall, had an inspirational run to the finals. But when it was over, Conestoga held the state championship trophy.
Jennings added, “I’ve been thinking about [getting to the state title game and winning it] for the last three months. I’ll never forget the moment the game was over and we won.”