Mathew’s goal denies Springfield trip to title game

CHAMBERSBURG >> The blows were 16 minutes apart on the same offending end of Chambersburg Area High School’s Trojan Field, but they hit Springfield like a 1-2 to the gut.

One was the shot that couldn’t find a way into the back of the net. The other, ruefully, did.

Seneca Valley’s Griffin Mathew blasted home the only goal Tuesday night seven minutes into overtime, sending the Raiders over Springfield, 1-0, in the PIAA Class AAA boys soccer tournament.

The goal materialized at the same end of the field that Springfield attacked in the second half, the one where it looked like they’d found the chance, the goal, to break the deadlock. But the post denied the latest installment of Nick Jannelli’s magical mystery tour with nine minutes left in regulation.

Ultimately, that’s all that separated the teams, the third and final seed from District Seven and District One’s last entrant of four, for a berth in a state title game, which Seneca Valley gets against District One champion Central Bucks East Saturday at HersheyPark Stadium. One shot wouldn’t go; the other, played into the right dangerous area and tucked away with precision worthy of a trip to Hershey, did.

To its credit, Seneca Valley (18-2-1) didn’t miss the opportunity. It had a clear plan in place to attack the flanks on Springfield’s narrow, man-marking system that resulted in plenty of threatening moments, but few shots that required the attention of Springfield goalie Mike Gerzabek.

But the moment arose at 8:46 of overtime. Springfield (17-6-2) started as the livelier side in overtime, though a shot on goal never materialized. Then the Raiders started pushing forward. One attacking wave was cleared, but as the Springfield defense pushed up to clear its lines, Seneca Valley center back Macen DiPaolo launched a ball forward behind the right wing that had generated so much trouble on the night.

Forward Matt Saluga was slow in receding, lingering on the shoulder of a defender. He saw DiPaolo’s ball, turned the corner, collected, and fired a low cross in the direction of strike partner Mathews, who side-footed it first time, a shot high and with venom that left Gerzabek no chance and a wake of disconsolate Springfield defenders sprawled out on the turf.

“Me and Matt have been playing together for a long time and we’re well-experienced with each other,” Mathew said. “I knew once he turned his shoulders, he just played me a ball in, he’s either going to play it in the air or on the ground. It’s just the chemistry we have.”

Springfield’s chance — and the defensive solidity of both teams limited the affair to such singular terms — came as the Cougars stayed forward for an extended spell. Jannelli lined up a free kick from 26 yards out that a four-man wall leapt to head away, but Springfield stayed forward.

Steve Randolph floated a quality cross-field ball over the defense as Jannelli pulled off the shoulder of his marker down the left wing. He took a touch and fired a shot through a defender that beat everyone save for the post.

That was as close as the Cougars ventured to a shot on goal. They struggled to string together passes against a Seneca Valley defense making a concerted effort to clog the middle and choke off space for Jannelli and his fellow playmakers.

“We were just trying to move the ball with our short passing game,” said midfielder Mike Wallace, who succeeded with a handful of marauding runs forward but never found a friendly face on the end of those sojourns. “It worked sometimes in this game, but we just couldn’t get it to go.”

Springfield, as it often has, rose to the occasion on defense. They were shorthanded five minutes in when Justin Donnelly, who rehabbed a sprain of his right MCL midseason, came up hobbling and had to spend the next 82 minutes with his leg brace off and a sweatshirt on. Alex Fuentes stepped up and filled in ably, handling the man-marking duties of the team’s system, with plenty of help from sweeper Ryan Straube.

“I think Straube being in the back helped a lot,” Fuentes said. “Me and Ronnie (Miller) were man-marking, and if they went through us, they’d have to deal with Straube. And Straube held it on the back end.”

Seneca Valley peppered the box with crosses, long throws and five corner kicks, but Gerzabek and the defense were always equal to the task, none that onerous. For owning the lion’s share of the possession, the Raiders weren’t exactly hosting a shooting gallery either.

Ultimately, Springfield had the tables turned on them. Often in its playoff run, which has included two wins in districts and two in states, they’ve had their back against the wall for long stretches. They’ve always done just enough — repelling a sufficiently high percentage of attacks and cashing in on chances that have been fewer and farther between than opponents.

Tuesday, the fortune that propelled them a post’s width from Hershey ran out.

“The ride was just unbelievable,” Wallace, one of 10 starting seniors, said. “We were just a family the whole way through. It just didn’t end the way we wanted it to.”

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