HERSHEY >> With a fierce wind blowing an unrelenting downpour of freezing rain on Saturday evening at Hersheypark Stadium, David Zimmerman was calm and composed, as usual.
The veteran Conestoga boys’ soccer coach’s low-key demeanor belied the high stakes of his program’s second appearance in the finals of the PIAA State Tournament. And even after the Pioneers secured the Class 4A state title with a 1-0 triumph over Elizabethtown, Zimmerman’s celebration was heartfelt, but more on the reserved side.
“I’m barely alive,” he laughed, when asked about his demeanor.
“The image I try to project is calm. Our players look to the coaching staff. If you are losing it or are angry, they are going to feel that.”
Zimmerman is not a screamer – never has been. A teacher and a tactician, yes, but not the kind of fire and brimstone you commonly associated with the coaching profession. As a result, his team’s plays a cerebral, measured style, with a focus on preparation and trusting the process.
“He is very low key. He doesn’t raise his voice very often,” said senior Gabe Harms.
“If we are not playing well, he will give us a stern talking to, maybe even a few choice words,” added another senior, Blaise Milanek.
Now with a pair of state championships in the last six years, Zimmerman and his staff – Blake Stabert, Angelo Capetola and Jamie O’Neil – have developed the ’Stoga program into one of the true gold standards in Pennsylvania. In the last seven seasons, for example, the Pioneers have made five appearances in the quarterfinals of the PIAA State Tournament.
“That whole staff is phenomenal. They get the kids to buy in,” said Conestoga Athletic Director Kevin Pechin.
“This staff has been together for seven, eight years,” Zimmerman pointed out. “Our goal is to try to set an example of composure, and the players on the field read that.”
The Pioneers’ ascent into a state power wasn’t exactly a quick rise, but more of a steady, gradual build — which kind of fits Zimmerman’s no-frills persona.
“Dave will outwork you,” Pechin said. “He is very calm, almost flat-lined. He doesn’t get too high or too low. As a result, his teams are very poised.”
Zimmerman’s first season as the head coach came back in 2002, and it took eight seasons for Conestoga to make its first deep postseason run in 2010. The following season, the Pioneers captured the District 1 title and went on to notch their first state crown under Zimmerman. It was the school’s second overall, with the first coming back in 1988.
“The coaches talk about the 2011 team a lot, we think of them as role models,” said senior Mason Miller. “And I’m so excited that a picture of this team will go right up next to that one.”
There was another quarterfinal run in 2013, when Harms, Milanek and Miller were freshmen, and then last fall ’Stoga advanced to the state semifinals. And along the way, the Pioneers have been the dominant program in the Central League, with six conference championships since 2010.
“This is why we put all the hard work in,” Zimmerman said. “We have high expectations, so for us to meet them, I can’t say enough about this team.
“The first state title (in 2011) was really unexpected. It just sort of happened. This time, at our first practice, the goal was set to win the state title. In a lot of ways, this was harder, because we are not surprising anybody.”
Through all of the success since 2010, the only constant has been is Zimmerman and his coaching staff. They’ve nurtured this culture of success.
“We are entirely dependent upon the club system and the players that come to us,” Zimmerman said, deflecting much of the credit. “Within the last 10 years, our club system gives us a stable of good players every year, so as much as I’d like to take credit for the success we’ve had over the years, we have very good players.”
His players, however, aren’t buying it. Zimmerman is a teacher at Conestoga, teaching history and psychology, and quite a few of his players have seen him in action in the classroom. He gets rave reviews as both a coach and a teacher.
“He’s a deep thinker and very intellectual both on the field and in the classroom,” Miller said.
“I don’t really like psychology much, but he made it my favorite class,” Milanek added. “It’s just the way he teaches. There are definitely a lot of similarities to coaching. He kind of empowers us and makes it easy to comprehend what he is trying to get across to us.”
Zimmerman has been preparing this squad to make a serious run at the state title for many months. Currently ranked sixth nationally by USA Today, the Pioneers went 25-1 overall by staying level-headed and performing with poise when the pressure was the greatest. Nine times this season, Conestoga found a way to prevail with a goal in the final 10 minutes of regulation or in overtime.
“We’ve had a lot of close games this season,” Zimmerman said. “At the half, it was 0-0 — well, we are used to that. It’s nothing for us.”
That kind of even-keel fortitude has been on display all fall. During an early season Central League showdown with Lower Merion in mid-October, ’Stoga was victimized by an own goal. But it didn’t faze the Pioneers, who came back to win it, 2-1.
It was one of 24 matches – out of 26 played this season — in which Conestoga limited its opponent to one or fewer goals. On Saturday, Elizabethtown just became the latest victim.
“As this season started winding down to the end, (Zimmerman ) made it clear to all of us that this is a once in the lifetime opportunity,” Milanek recalled.
“Coach (Zimmerman ) is the main reason we got this far and won the state championship. As a senior there is no better what to go out.”