Defense carried Springfield to top of the heap

WEST GOSHEN — Pat Smyth admitted that he was nervous as Thursday evening’s game wound into the fourth quarter. If that was the case in any of his Springfield defensive mates, they hid it deeply in the efficiency of their play.

With any team, the road to a title takes many twists and terms, many tests passed or failed. But the capstone course for Springfield’s 7-5 win over Conestoga in the District One final at West Chester Henderson unfolded over some six minutes in the fourth quarter.

Over that stretch, Springfield’s defense battened down the hatches and withstood an extended spell of pressure by the Pioneers. The Cougars tracked cutters, stayed compact and fired off the crease and into the hands of would-be shooters on the wings with amazing alacrity.

For Smyth, those sequences held angst borne of the weight of the moment. But never did he doubt the ability of his team to persevere.

“Honestly, we’ve been in so many of those before, it kind of seems natural,’ the defenseman said. “That’s when we play the best, when it’s most clutch.’

The truth for the Cougars Thursday is that they came close to playing the perfect game at the perfect time. The won three of four quarters, save for some lapses in a third quarter dominated by the Pioneers by a 4-0 margin.

Springfield got the secondary offensive contributions it needed with the expected shutting off of Lucas Spence as the focal point of Conestoga’s overwhelmingly physical defense. Mike Gerzabek emerged early with two first-quarter goals, then added the game-winner. Kyle Long dished there assists, including phenomenal feeds on the tying and go-ahead goals. Dan Wasson chipped in a goal and an assist, and of course the indomitable Spence still had an impact with two goals, including the seventh and final tally to seal Springfield’s first District One title.

The Cougars won the faceoff battle decisively through Zach Dworkin, who claimed 11 of 16 draws, including the last seven. And save for a few nervy turnovers in the third quarter that perpetuated Conestoga’s run, Springfield was clinical in possession.

Perhaps the most amazing stat is this: Springfield was outshot, 23-15, yet scored seven goals. Factor in the four saves made by Conestoga goalie’s John Roulston, and that means the Cougars missed the cage a scant four times (one of which was a Wasson crack off the crossbar). That level of patience and restraint in waiting for, then converting the right shot is championship worthy.

But where Springfield fostered it’s most decisive advantage was defensively. The group led by Smyth, Jake Crowther, Dave Wasson and long-stick midfielder Zac Methlie hardly put a foot wrong, even when lesser teams would’ve wilted under Conestoga’s constant barrage of pressure.

“We did a great job of playing one-on-one defense, keeping them out,’ Methlie said. “They do a lot of moving around and setting picks, and we communicated really well.’

Going hand in hand with repelling Conestoga’s advances was Springfield’s ability on the ground. When their active sticks caused loose passes or blocked shots, a white-clad player was more often than not on the scene to clean up the mess and deny extra chances. Methlie, the team’s resident groundball maven, even added a goal in transition, just his second of the season, a microcosm for how the basics steered Springfield to a title.

“At the top of our scouting report, it always says groundballs.’ Smyth said. “The groundball battle, if you win that, you get more possession, stay off defense. It’s always our big key to winning the game. It’s all about heart with groundballs. It’s who wants it more.’

“Pressure’ is the correct term instead of “shots,’ because more often than not, Conestoga couldn’t pull the trigger. When they did in the fourth, the efforts were increasingly hopeful and desperate.

Gerzabek completed his hat trick at 10:43 of the fourth, and after another Dworkin victory, Springfield followed with a sustained possession for around a minute that ended with a blocked Long shot.

Conestoga monopolized the ball until Spence was able to run free and hide in the corner to tick the clock from just under three minutes to around 1:30. He’d score at 1:14, formally curtailing the Pioneers’ title hopes.

In between, James Spence snuffed a Steven Hildebrand shot that was rushed and ill-advised for the big attackman who’d scored twice Thursday.

Springfield turned the ball over quickly, but recovered to deny Conestoga an easy look. From there, it settled into a pattern: Conestoga would pass, charge, find the preferred path blocked, reset and go again. Five times after Hildebrand’s shot, the Pioneers hoisted potshots that missed the cage, shooting as much just to justify all the motion and effort as to actually pose a credible threat of breaking through.

The final throw of the dice was off the stick of Sam Friedman, whose effort from the right alley was directly at the cradle of James Spence for an easy save, a crisp clear and the anticipation for the final dog pile.

“We were all tired,’ Methlie said. “We knew we need to push to win this game, and we need a couple of big stops so we could win.

“That’s what we did. We kept our composure, and we got it done.’

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