EMMAUS — Jack Hajnik enjoys the underdog role, especially since the team playing that part is Great Valley.
Throughout Hajnik’s four years with the Patriots, he has grown accustomed to teams giving Great Valley its best game during these cold state playoff contests in November.
The target is not on the Patriots’ back this season. Hajnik is fine with that.
“I love being the underdog,’ Hajnik said. “We’re not that team to be taken down now. Before we were the team to beat. Now these playoff games are a little better, a little easier. There’s less pressure.’
Great Valley certainly played that way thoughout this chilly night. Hajnik scored the game-winning goal in the 53rd minute to give the Patriots a 2-1 victory over Reading High in a PIAA Class AAA quarterfinal game at Emmaus High School Saturday night.
Great Valley returns to the PIAA semifinals for the second consecutive season with the win. The Patriots (18-5-2) will play Mechanicsburg, a 1-0 winner over District 1 champion Central Bucks East, Tuesday at a site and time to be determined.
Reading’s (23-3) season ended with the loss.
This season has been a complete reversal for the Patriots’ road to the semifinals compared to 2013, when Great Valley won its first 24 games en route to the PIAA Final Four.
Great Valley had four losses heading into the district playoffs 16 days ago. As a No. 15 seed, they just decided to play their best soccer at the right time.
“From the beginning of the season, I was a little worried,’ said goaltender Aiden Claffey on whether the Patriots could make the state playoffs. “I’m proud of this team and proud to go this far. We peaked at the right time. It’s amazing.’
Claffey finished with six saves on a night which he needed to be spectacular in net. In the 50th minute, the keeper had his brightest moment.
With the Patriots clinging to a one goal lead, Oliver Calvo blasted a free kick from 20-yards out with a dangerous hook.
But there was Claffey, reaching up to poke the shot away and deny Calvo of the same blast he used to defeat Ches-Mont American Division champion Unionville four days earlier.
The momentum on Claffey’s save set up Hajnik’s goal. The striker took a free kick in open space and chipped a ball past Reading keeper Raul Zamora off his left foot to give Great Valley a 2-0 lead. The goal was Hajnik’s ninth of the season.
“Teams that play three in the back always give me more space,’ Hajnik said. “I caught the defender too far forward on that ball so I just went right over him and came in. Might have made a little bit of a back touch, but it worked out.’
Moments later, the momentum shifted in the Red Knights favor. Using an aggressive attack, Bryan Franco kicked a ball high in the box. Claffey went to poke the ball out, which resulted in his only mistake of the night. In a bizarre turn of events, the ball landed off of Claffey’s hand and into the back of the net, cutting Great Valley’s lead to 2-1.
The Patriots wouldn’t relinguish the lead. The closest Reading got at the equalizer was on an Edwardo Gutierrez kick from 30-yards out which bounced off the top of the crossbar in the 70th minute.
Great Valley held on for the victory. Playing in last year’s PIAA tournament paid off en route to the win. Last season, the Patriots reached the PIAA semifinals before falling to Conestoga Valley.
“Experience helped us a lot,’ said Nick Paynter, who scored in the first half to give Great Valley a 1-0 lead. “Some of these teams haven’t been this far so we have the experience over them in these games. It’s an advantage for us.’
Paynter scored his goal on a perfect pass from Kyle Hoops in the 23rd minute. The plan was for Great Valley to control the tempo and get the early lead against a fast Reading team.
The Patriots accomplished that in a half they simply dominated.
“We wanted to go ahead early and just defend after that,’ Paynter said. “They shoot from far out, so we just wanted to keep the pressure up.’
Next up for Great Valley is that return trip to the PIAA semifinals against Mechanicsburg, the District 3 runner-up. Once again, the Patriots will embrace the underdog role that has carried them throughout these playoffs.
Or take Paynter’s philosophy heading into Great Valley’s biggest game of the season.
“We’ll go in thinking we’re the better team,’ Paynter said. “Just play our butts off.’