Sopko’s goal gives Conestoga the edge on Penncrest

LOWER MERION — The task was simple for Conestoga’s Tommy Sopko.

“I knew I had to go to goal,’ the sophomore attacker said. “I just looked to shoot, that was my favorite shot.’

Sopko’s unassisted goal with seven seconds remaining lifted the Pioneers to a state-tournament-berth-clinching 9-8 victory over Penncrest Saturday at Harriton High School in the quarterfinals of the District One Tournament.

Conestoga (12-9) is guaranteed one of the five state spots District One offers. It advances to Tuesday’s semifinal against Radnor, where it can further improve its seeding. Penncrest (15-5), meanwhile, falls into a playback Tuesday against Bishop Shanahan.

The defending state champion Lions won it all last season following that same precarious path. They anticipated a more fluid road this time around. Conestoga had other ideas.

“Sucks,’ Penncrest coach Wayne Matsinger said. “That’s my reaction.’ He declined to comment further.

The back-and-forth game had everything one would expect from two Central League teams — nobody led by more than two goals, there were penalties, there was chippiness, there were individual moments of brilliance. Most of all, there was a wild last three minutes.

An illegal stick penalty on Conestoga’s Steven Hildebrand gave Penncrest a man advantage with 3:01 left in the game. It was the second time in the game his stick was inspected by the officials. The first time it passed. This time, inexplicably, it did not.

Penncrest, down 8-7 at that juncture, quickly tied the game on Colin Speer’s strike from Drew Hanna. It got back possession, but an interception by Conestoga’s Jack Reilly gave his team an offense chance. It made it count.

“It think this team has seen everything this year,’ Conestoga coach Brody Bush said. “The seniors were ready, they came to play.’

During that possession, a slashing penalty on Zack Kaut made it 5-on-5, giving the Pioneers a window. Sopko jumped through it.

“It was a good shot,’ said Penncrest’s Dan Bullitt, who was defending him on the play. “I was on his hips, he just shot it off his hips.’

Penncrest beat Conestoga, 12-4, when they played in the regular season. But Bush said his team — older, healthier, deeper — is a lot different now than they were then.

Clinching a state berth against the defending champs wasn’t lost on them.

“That’s good, that’s a good feeling,’ Bush said. “It was a great win for our program.’

Penncrest led, 4-3, after a methodical first quarter. Conestoga scored two goals in the second quarter to go into halftime up, 5-4. After Ryan Kinnard’s third goal of the game tied it about five minutes into the second half, Conestoga scored twice, again, to lead, 7-5.

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