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DLN ALL-AREA: Chris Donovan’s jaw-dropping season pushed Conestoga to state title

PAOLI >> Chris Donovan became the most celebrated high school soccer player in the state of Pennsylvania this fall.

The lanky senior from Conestoga shattered all kinds of scoring records in 2017, notched the winning goal in each of the last two state title games, and wowed college coaches with an impressive array of skills and abilities. Donovan is now capturing just about every postseason award imaginable — including the Daily Local News Player of the Year honors, as well as All-American recognition.

And he is, in a lot of ways, a reluctant superstar.

“For the most part I like to fly under the radar and not bring too much attention to myself,” Donovan said. “But obviously, with what happened this season, I’ve been getting a lot of attention for all of the goals.

“Somewhere deep down I suppose I’m glad I am getting the recognition, but that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with all of it.”

Over a magical three-month span, the Pioneers’ striker scored a mind-numbing 56 goals for a ’Stoga squad that won the Central League title, the District 1 crown and the PIAA Class 4A Championship. Nobody else in the county managed to score more than 20.

And as impressive as it is, it still doesn’t tell the whole story.

“It was an unbelievable pleasure to watch Chris play,” said his coach, Dave Zimmerman. “I marveled at some of the things he could do. College coaches would talk about how good his off-the-ball movement was.

“We did a camp before the season, and they couldn’t believe his off the ball movement and said his ability to make runs were at the professional level.”

Keep in mind that the Paoli native wasn’t some kind of a child prodigy. As a skinny 130-pounder, he played on the Conestoga freshman team in 2014. And with an August birthday, Donovan was always among the youngest kids in his class.

“I found it more difficult when I was younger,” he said.

“People don’t realize how young he is,” Zimmerman added. “He didn’t turn 17 until August so he is very young for his class.”

After a growth spurt, however, he made the varsity as a sophomore, and went on to lead the Pioneers in scoring. By then, he had given up playing basketball competitively, and began focusing solely on soccer. Donovan followed it up by leading ’Stoga in scoring as a junior.

But nobody was prepared for what happened in 2017.

“Honestly, coming into the season, the goal was just to break the Conestoga (single-season) record, which was 23 goals,” he acknowledged. “I was aiming for 24 on the way in.”

Donovan broke that record midway through the season, and went on to more than double it. Along the way he established a school record for hat-tricks in a season (nine), and also set the mark for career goals with 81. And, don’t forget, he did it at a premier program like ’Stoga, who has won four state crowns since 1988, and three since 2010 under Zimmerman.

“At a certain point of the season, everybody knew that (Donovan) was the guy,” Zimmerman pointed out. “It was no secret. Opposing teams would game plan specifically to try to stop him, marking him with two or three guys, and he would still score.”

Even though defenses were heavily slanted his way, Donovan didn’t just score a bunch; he scored a bunch of big goals. During the Pioneers’ playoff run, he tallied 16 of the teams’ last 17 goals.

“In six of those games, Chris was our only scorer,” Zimmerman said.

“He can score in so many different ways. He can shoot the ball, and he is very good in the air finishing with his head. He is extremely fast, so he can get in behind defenders, and he has incredible touch. Over the years he’s mastered an arsenal of different moves and turns.”

As the season progressed, Donovan continued to draw more and more defensive attention. By the end, he was regularly man marked, which is where a defender was specifically assigned to him rather than covering an area.

“By the end of the season, I was expecting to be man marked,” Donovan said. “In the state final, (Hempfield) started the game man marking me, and then after I scored two they decided to stop, and I ended up scoring two more.”

That’s right, Donovan scored all of the goals in Hershey during ’Stoga’s 4-0 triumph, successfully defending its state title in the process.

“All season there was an expectation that I would score a goal or two per game, and that anything else my teammates added was helpful,” Donovan said. “But there were a few games where I didn’t score, and it was necessary that others did.

“Going in (to the state final), I was hoping to get one (goal), and maybe two if I was lucky,” he added. “But things really broke my way. I’ve watched film of the game at least 10 times already.”

It was, to be sure, a perfect way to end a storied high school career. He was named the Central League MVP, earned a spot on the All-State team, and recently garnered All-American honors from the United Soccer Coaches Association of America.

“Chris is a gifted soccer player, but he is very smart and very much a student of the game. He has an analytical mind,” Zimmerman said.

“It’s entertaining for me to try to time my runs perfectly and to do everything technically well,” Donovan explained. “I think I’d like to eventually coach because I find the tactics and formations really intriguing.”

Donovan has signed to play Division I college soccer at Drexel. His younger sister, Caitlin, is a sophomore striker for the Conestoga varsity squad.

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