Conestoga advances to semis
SHILLINGTON >> With the PIAA Class 4A quarterfinal still scoreless well into the second half Saturday, Hempfield looked far out of its comfort zone.
In fact, the Black Knights could hardly possess the ball in the Conestoga zone.
The Pioneers, meanwhile, appeared as composed as if they had a 3-nil lead or were enjoying a little scrimmage alongside the winor-go-home highway that takes you all over creation in the state tournament. The no-tomorrow clause just didn’t seem to apply to them because, well, talk about been there-done that …
They had been to this exact stage of states last year, and won, before a heartbreaking semifinal loss. They had been in
so many close games this season that pressure became a friend, and, like a good friend, nearly always came through. In all before this state quarterfinal, the Pioneers had scored nine game-winning goals in the last 10 minutes or overtime.
So, in the 40-degree chill at Governor Mifflin as the sun went down and the field lights came on, it was no sweat.
“We feel really confident in each other, and we have a lot of composure,” said Conestoga junior midfielder Rodrigo Martinez. “I feel we demonstrated that throughout the year.”
And they did so again, in the biggest moment yet, if not in the final 10 minutes or OT. Martinez delivered the kill shot, scoring in the 65th minute to lift the Pioneers to a 1-0 victory and a return trip to the state semis.
“It’s like a déjà vu moment really,” said senior forward Mason Miller, whose sweet arcing corner kick set the winning play in motion. “This year we’re just trying to go even farther.”
Hempfield was going nowhere slowly most of the day, especially in the second half, when the Black Knights barely had the ball and did not produce a shot on goal until the 76th minute. As much as its back and midfield, Conestoga’s offense was its defense, the Pioneers’ rhythmic possession game of skilled passers and dribblers completely controlling the game.
“What helped us keep our composure was our quick 1-2 touch passing,” Miller said. “We’re a really good possession team, and we did a really good job with that today. We kept up the speed of play and that made them tired.”
Conestoga, which had only three shots in the first half despite a major ball control advantage, kept the pressure on. The Pioneers had a hard time cracking Hempfield sophomore goalkeeper Tristan Green, who was terrific. Green made three impressive saves in the second half, the last a diving effort to deny the rocket launch from Miller.
But the fourth good scoring opportunity of the half was the charm for Conestoga, as, per design of the play practiced many times, the Pioneers read the defense and picked an option. It appeard Mike McCarthy would try the shot from dead center 20 yards out when the corner kick came from Miller, but he skipped over it, giving a touch to the ball back to Martinez, who stepped into it and banged it home.
“It really just comes down to communication, ”Martinez said. “We’ve all got to be on the same page.”
Hempfield’s only shot at tying came with under 4 minutes remaining, when Kurtis Rineer’s offering near the box was saved easily by Luke Smith.
While the Pioneers made their possession game look easy, make no mistake: you don’t return to the state semifinals without working even harder than the year before. Conestoga coach David Zimmerman could reflect proudly on the substance his 23-1 team has shown in doing that.
“You look at all sports at all levels, and when you have a lot of success, usually you come back the next year and it’s not there,” Zimmerman said. “How many teams repeat? It’s something about success that leads to failure - attitude, work ethic.
“That was our theme at the very beginning of the season: how we do we follow up what we did last year, and how difficult it can be to find the motivation to do all the work. It’s a credit to these guys. They’re a great group of guys, hard workers, and they 100 percent buy in.”
“Last year we ended the season with a sour taste in our mouth,” Conestoga defender Will Klein said. “And we want to redeem ourselves and see if we can get to Hershey.”