Springfield’s run to state semis no foreign affair for Gast

SPRINGFIELD >> When the fall semester started, Benny Gast figured there was no harm in asking.

The German exchange student was struck by the centrality of sports to the student experience at Springfield High School. He played club soccer in his hometown of Munich, so he figured he’d ask if he could tryout, for JV, maybe varsity.

Fast forward two-and-a-half months, and there Gast was, burying the opening goal in Springfield’s 2-1 win over Fox Chapel in the PIAA Class AAA quarterfinals Saturday.

The win moves the Cougars (17-5-2) into the semifinals Tuesday against Seneca Valley, the third seed from District Seven. Kickoff in the “western” final at Chambersburg Area High School is 6 p.m. The winner gets the survivor of the Eastern final, a District One title game rematch between Conestoga and Central Bucks East at Souderton Tuesday night, in Saturday’s state final at HersheyPark Stadium.

ROBERT J. GURECKI   -   DAILY TIMES. Springfield soccer player Benny Gast during practice.
Benny Gast is on the ball at Springfield’s practice Monday. Gast came to Springfield as an exchange student from Germany for his senior year and finds himself right in the middle of a thrilling run to the PIAA Class AAA semifinals for the Cougars, who can advance to the state title game with a win over Seneca Valley Tuesday. (Times Staff/Robert J. Gurecki)

Gast is hardly a ringer brought into the mix; the sophomore doesn’t even start. Saturday’s goal was his third of the season, and he shares time in a three-man platoon at forward with starter Maxx Drumm and Justin Eckard, the latter of which also sees time as a wing forward. But his outsider status offers a unique prospective on a cohesive group that has played together for years.

First, there is Gast’s journey from a high school in Munich to the doorstep of Fox Chapel’s net to tuck away Nick Jannelli’s rebound in the first half Saturday. Gast played club soccer for TSV Gruenwald. But youth sports in Germany are rigidly decoupled from schools like Albert Einstein Gymnasium, the alma mater of the building’s namesake that Gast attends. In Germany, players compete for clubs, but rarely for their schools, in contrast to the unique and entrenched American scholastic sports edifice.

That made the notion of representing his new school on the soccer field enticingly exotic.

“We do sports with school, but nobody cares,” Gast said at practice Monday. “Here, everybody is like, ‘are you going to be at the game?’ and it’s so exciting and there’s announcements about the next game of different teams. In Germany, we don’t have that.”

Gast had his adjustment period to certain aspects of the game. Springfield’s man-marking, modified sweeper/stopper system, for instance, is regarded in most arenas as slightly outdated and long ago fell from favor among Europe’s highest levels.

But Gast, much like Springfield’s coaching staff, strikes a sympathetically pragmatic chord about the changes.

“It’s pretty much the same because the coach that I had in Germany is thinking the same way our coach thinks,” Gast said. “There are a few different things, but I think they’re just that German soccer is like that, and American soccer is like that, and it’s just different.”

What remains the same and was instantly recognizable to Gast is the chemistry that exists on the Springfield team. The Cougars start 10 seniors. Their path to the state semis bears the hallmarks of a resilient side: Three times, including Saturday, Springfield has scored first, given up the lead, then rebounded to win.

Part of that success is borne of the adversity thrown its way early in the season, with injuries depriving it of key players, especially defensively. The forced flexibility over the scale of weeks has forged bonds that make minor obstacles afflicting the team for a possession or minute more easily mitigated.

“Just knowing that everyone is able to do anything really we need them to do,” midfielder John Ryan Kilker said. “It’s comforting to know that whatever needs to be done can be done by whoever’s put on the field.”

Gast understands that part of the transition from granular pieces to a coherent whole involved his acceptance into the group.

“Every one of them was very nice to me and they were accepting me in the group although I was so new,” Gast said. “Now I really don’t feel the foreign part of it, that I’m not from this high school, that I haven’t played with them for the last four years. I really feel like a part of the team right now. ”

Springfield's John Ryan Kilker heads a ball at practice Monday ahead of Tuesday's PIAA Class AAA semifinal. (Times Staff/Robert J. Gurecki)
Springfield’s John Ryan Kilker heads a ball at practice Monday ahead of Tuesday’s PIAA Class AAA semifinal. (Times Staff/Robert J. Gurecki)

Saturday showed how vital the spark of Gast’s change of pace can be. Gast isn’t as physical as Drumm, who has two goals this postseason. But with Fox Chapel putting Springfield under constant pressure, Gast’s technical ability was the more valuable commodity, able to play 1-2s with attacking midfielders like Andrew Astrino and Jannelli to relieve pressure and launch counterattacks.

They’ll likely need something similar against Seneca Valley (16-2-1). The Raiders lost just once in the regular season before falling to District Seven champ Canon-McMillan in the district semifinals, a loss they avenged in the PIAA quarterfinal. The Raiders were knocked out in the quarters last year, so the veteran squad is looking to Tuesday’s game as a chance to blaze a new trail deeper into the state tourney.

In the face of that challenge, Gast represents just another weapon in the arsenal that has Springfield on the brink of something special.

“It would mean everything,” Kilker said of getting to the state title game. “It’s just a dream. We’ve been playing together so long, and this would be a way to finish out our careers on a win. It’s the ultimate thing.”

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