UPPER MERION >> Dylan Smith saved his best for last.
A last-ditch free kick by Abington had given the Galloping Ghosts as good an opportunity as they would get at an equalizer in the final half-minute of the District 1-4A final against Central Bucks West. After the initial service fell to the ground amidst a mass of bodies, Reese Gibbs was able to turn and shoot at the gaping wide-open net.
Smith, who was in that cluster of humanity and still falling, managed somehow to spring upward and push the ball up and off the crossbar. It was the kind of save only he could make and it was the one that saved the Bucks.
Behind another standout effort from Smith and a terrific offensive game from Jimi Leder, No. 6 CB West edged No. 4 Abington 2-1 in a stirring district title game Saturday night at Upper Merion.
“It’s almost like looking in a mirror,” Smith said of the two stylistically similar teams. “They have some great weapons up top and we were just able to find ways to deal with them. Playing the way we do, I think it helped us today.”
As clutch as he was late, Smith was also instrumental in the first half, denying three really good early chances by Abington. The Ghosts have thrived all season on being the first team to score, so West knew it couldn’t afford to go down early.
It also meant the Bucks (19-2-0) would be under a lot of pressure in the back and guys like Nick Centenera, Kyle Holt, James Lutz and Carson Snyder would have to be up to their game. Smith attributes much of his success to an implicit trust with his backs and it showed again on Saturday as the senior keeper stayed composed even with bodies hurling around his box.
“I thought it was a lot of fun for both teams, hopefully, to be a part of,” Bucks coach Stefan Szygiel said. “It was going to be a one-goal game in somebody’s favor and we just happened to come out of it on the 2-1 side tonight.”
Leder has really upped his game this postseason, scoring the game-tying goal in the quarterfinals against North Penn then the only goal in a semifinal win over Spring-Ford, both on the road. The junior looked dangerous early on Saturday but he and his teammates had to wait until the second half to make something of it.
BOYS SOCCER 15:06 2nd half: CB West 2, Abington 1
Alan Zlotin off Jimi Leder free kick pic.twitter.com/p3dPCjRHqQ
— Andrew Robinson (@ADRobinson3) November 3, 2018
Colin Burn fought through a tackle, regained the ball and played into the center of the box for Leder, who put home a terrific finish top shelf to edge West ahead 1-0 with 30:54 left in the game. The midfielder, who also noted the striking similarities in the two sides, said the Bucks just stuck true to their identity and it led to their breakthrough.
“I feel like I’m finding the good spaces and just happen to be in the right spot,” Leder said. “I give it up to our midfield for playing the balls in and keeping us playing West soccer.”
Abington (20-2-0) didn’t quit after the goal and had a Liam Friel header ring the bar off a corner as they continued to hunt for a goal. Sean Touey, who battled several defenders any time he touched the ball all night, finally cashed in when he made a determined run into the box and thumped home a partially deflected cross from Bryce Lexow with 17:45 left.
“Bryce is a sophomore who works extremely hard, he’s up and down the field on the right side,” Abington coach Randy Garber said. “They have a good defense and their goalkeeper is an outstanding player, so it makes it difficult to play against. They score a goal, get on top and usually sew it up 1-0 and (Smith) shuts everything out.”
Garber felt like his team’s direct style benefited it in trying to come back. Abington wants to apply as much pressure as possible, and Szygiel even noted how aggressive the Ghosts are in pouncing on second balls, so they weren’t
“We’re very, very similar,” Garber said. “Their team speed is incredible and it’s something they rightly rely on.
“It’s not like we lost to a team we shouldn’t have lost to. They’re a complete team, a very strong team and I guess we just didn’t have enough chances to score.”
The five minutes following a goal are usually the most important for both the team that just scored and the one who just got scored on. West went right back on the offensive and went right back to Leder, who got doubled on the left flank and drew a foul to set up a free kick.
Leder set up over the ball and spun the service in front of goal, where target man Alan Zlotin didn’t waste the chance to go back in front, staking West up a goal with 15:06 to play.
“I was actually looking for the front-post run, I knew Alan was going to make it front post,” Leder said. “We work on that like 100 times a day in practice and it paid off in a big game.”
“He’s growing and evolving as the season is growing and evolving and what I’m seeing from him is he’s tapping into another level,” Szygiel said of Leder. “He’s a competitor and that’s what we need. We need a player to step up and give us a hero moment and maybe be involved in another hero moment and that’s what he did tonight.”
The final minutes of the game was a maelstrom of physical challenges, bombed balls up and down the pitch and guys throwing every last bit of what they had into an opportunity.
“The guys in front of me killed it, again, that’s been the story of our run,” Smith said. “After they tied it, it kind of just goes into our experience from last year, there aren’t many situations we haven’t been in. This game, we looked around and said it’s not the first time this happened and it certainly won’t be the last.”
Both teams head into states on Tuesday. Abington will face District 11 runner-up Emmaus while the Bucks get a stiff test in Central Dauphin, the third place finisher out of District 3. Sites and times haven yet to be finalized but neither squad should have to travel very far.
Smith pointed to the team’s second regular season meeting with North Penn, a 4-3 victory in overtime as the moment where the last bits of last year’s run to the state semifinals wore off and this team took ownership of its own identity.
“It means we show up in big games, honestly,” Smith said. “At the beginning of the season, the goal was states. Every game in states will be a big game. We’ve been able to show up in big games so far and hopefully that continues.
“This feels good, but I think a state championship might feel a little better.”
CENTRAL BUCKS WEST 2, ABINGTON 1
CENTRAL BUCKS WEST 0 2 – 2
ABINGTON 0 1 – 1
Goals: CBW – Jimi Leder (Colin Burn), Alan Zlotin (Leder); A – Sean Touey (Bryce Lexow).