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Birtwistle, Radnor press their way into state final

Radnor's Josh Savadove, left, and goalie Henry Cooke go vertical to celebrate their District 1 Class 4A playoff victory over West Chester Henderson. (Pete Bannan/Digital First Media)
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CHAMBERSBURG — Jackson Birtwistle’s name won’t show up in the boxscore of Tuesday’s night’s PIAA Class 4A boys soccer semifinal. But the Radnor junior forward’s fingerprints were all over a first half that Radnor controlled at Chambersburg High School.

While Bobby Hydrisko rifled in a shot from 30 yards in the 33rd minute, there was Birtwistle off near the touchline, his hustle the reason why goalkeeper Will Gallagher was caught out, only able to wave at Hydrisko’s drive that pinged off the back post and in.

Birtwistle was a spectator on Ben Engstrom’s goal four minutes later, only because his ball into the box summoned the craziness that the the senior mid exploited, narrowly beating the offside trap to head home.

The shadow contributions by Birtwistle to a 3-0 win over District 7 champ Seneca Valley display the depth that the Raiders possess. And it explains why they’re bound for Hershey and a state final.

Radnor (20-3-2), the fifth seed from District 1, will match up with District 3 runner-up Wilson, which routed Unionville, 4-0, Tuesday. Kickoff at HersheyPark Stadium is 6:30 Saturday night. It’s Radnor’s first state final appearance since winning in 2004 in Class AA and first big-school final since 1980.

The opening goal encapsulated Radnor’s postseason run: A healthy amount of grit and hustle, a little ugliness and a dash of brilliance.

Birtwistle provided the former commodities, chasing down Gallagher on an innocuous seeming back pass, the Radnor press springing to life. It forced an errant pass, which caused a loose touch by left back Jake Smith as Hydrisko closed the vise of pressure.

Hydrisko took possession, took a touch and powered an inch-perfect shot that Gallagher was helpless to deny.

“I took a long touch down the line, saw the keeper was off his line and I just went for it,” Hydrisko said.

“It was awesome,” Birtwistle said of his teammate’s finish. “I was in shock for like 15 minutes, just trying to think about what just happened. It was a crazy thing to do. We were able to close out the half, so it was awesome.”

Four minutes later, Birtwistle pursued a clearance of a Hydrisko long throw to the end line. He lofted in a cross that Eliot Hayes headed forward to Engstrom, hugging the offside line to nod over Gallagher and make it 2-0 three minutes from halftime.

Birtwistle’s contributions don’t always track with the center forward mold. Radnor has eight goals in states, none from Birtwistle, though he has a pair of assists. He spent the second half of Saturday’s quarterfinal against State College on the bench after picking up a knock. But Tuesday, he was busting a lung covering every inch of space he could.

“It’s a state semifinal,” Birtwistle said. “There’s nothing really like it. As we get farther into it, I feel like we have more energy as a team. We just play better and we’re able to put that high pressure up there.”

With two goals in hand, the Raiders followed a familiar playoff script. They haven’t allowed a second-half goal in three states games, and they entered states on the back of consecutive shutouts in win-or-go-home playpacks contests in districts.

It was no different Tuesday. They were aided by a pair of ill-timed injuries to Seneca Valley attacking midfielders, with Ben Francis going out in the first half with an arm injury and Seth Winters leaving on crutches after a second-half collision.

Luke Rupert was dangerous up top, forcing Nate Congleton into a diving save in the first half, while center back Keegan McVicker toe-poked a dangerous effort in the second half that Henry Cooke parried wide. But the chances were overwhelmingly in Radnor’s favor.

Part of the reason is the complementary skillets in the center of the pitch. In central defense, Bennett Mueller brings the height to Evan Majercak’s covering speed. Jake Lee seemed to be everywhere in midfield as a backline shield, while Hayes is the go-to aerial specialist. And while Seneca Valley rotated outside backs at regular intervals, Radnor’s Ben Verbofsky and Josh Savadove were rock solid out wide.

“I just feel like we work really well as a unit,” Mueller said. “We’ve all got each others’ backs, we all cover for each other. I can rely on everybody else on the back line to clear anything that I mess up or any of that stuff. We work really well together to stop goals.”

That height makes defending leads easy in another regard, as Mueller showed in the 66th, rising to head home a corner-kick delivery from Hydrisko after he and Birtwistle played it short.

The net result is a return trip to Hershey, where Radnor started states play by spotting Cumberland Valley the first two goals. Three wins later, all against districts champs, and the Raiders will play for a state title.

“This is just unbelievable,” Hydrisko said. “I love every single one of these kids. The work that they all put in, it makes it all worth it.”

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