Team Dynamic

Conestoga boys’ soccer hopes to tell another championship story.

When the history of Conestoga boys’ soccer is told, it won’t take much time to cover the first 42 years. During that stretch, the Pioneers won a total of three Central League titles, only one of which was outright. That’s not exactly a rich tradition.

But when the last six years are discussed, those listening had better get comfortable, because it’s going to take awhile. Included in the tale will be a 2011 PIAA state title, four total state tournament berths— including last year’s semifinal appearance—and five CL crowns. Stoga has gone from an afterthought on the pitch to a dominant force. The team has started the 2016 season 12-0 and is ranked second in the recently released District 1 power rankings (Lower Merion is fourth), first in the Pennsylvania Soccer Coaches Association poll, and fifth nationally in the rankings.

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In other words, these are fat times for Conestoga soccer. “I can’t take a lot of credit,” says 15th year coach David Zimmerman. “Ultimately, it’s about the players we get, and that has to do with our club team.”

Ten years ago, the Tredyffrin-Easttown Youth Soccer Association formed an elite team, FC Europa. Almost immediately, better players started competing year-round, leading to what Zimmerman calls a “noticeable change” in the players funneling onto the varsity roster.

Saturday, the Pioneers stayed perfect with a 2-1 win over visiting Cumberland Valley, which reached the state quarterfinals last year. Nick Jennings’ one-timer from inside the box with under a minute remaining was the deciding goal. With six games left—including a visit from 9-0-2 Lower Merion Oct. 18—Conestoga is in fine position to make a deep post-season run and improve on last year’s D-I runner-up finish and state semifinal appearance. Eventual PIAA champ Central Bucks East ousted the Pioneers in both instances.

“We were a little bit younger team,” Zimmerman says. “They were more physical and bigger. They muscled us around some. It’s much harder to lose to a team that you think you’re better than. We recognized they were the better team.”

The Pioneers returned 17 players from last year’s team and have shown the ability to excel on both sides of the field, scoring, on average, three goals per game and surrendering less than one per match. So far, the only thing Zimmerman can find to criticize is the team’s tendency to be “too nice” on the field. But he praises his players’ willingness to do whatever has been asked of them.
This is an extremely deep team, and Zimmerman does a lot of substituting, something that could create some discontent among starters. “We have no problem with egos,” he says.

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The Pioneers use two goalies. Sophomore Luke Smith and junior Colin Dougherty are trying to establish themselves as full-timers, following the graduation of three-year starter Luke’s older brother, Will, who’s now at Lehigh University. So while there’s some uncertainty at that spot, there are no such questions at several other positions. Right wing Chris Donahue is the Pioneers’ top scorer, and attacking center midfielder Mason Miller—who’s headed to Colgate next year—is a stalwart in the middle of the field. Right back Gabe Harms (Ohio State), defensive center midfielder Blaise Milaner (Lehigh) and defensive center back Will Klein (Haverford College) are other standouts.

The District playoffs start Oct. 25, and Conestoga is hoping to establish itself as the best in this area, before moving on to big things on the state level. Zimmerman doesn’t look at last year as any indication of what may happen in 2016, and he uses his 2012 squad as an example. In 2010, the Pioneers reached the state quarters. A season later, they won the championship. In ’12, they were knocked out early in the district playoffs. “Are we going to move to the next level, or are we going to drop down?” he asks. “It’s a challenge at times to get consistent effort out of the team.”

Whether Zimmerman and his staff succeed in coaxing championship play out of his players this season will be another chapter in what has become an entertaining story.

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Phillies GM Matt Klentak expressed considerable satisfaction over the team’s 71-win performance in 2016. But while the Phils did win eight more games than they did last year, they were the worst hitting team in the majors, and blaming it all on deposed hitting coach Steve Henderson isn’t the answer. The Phils cannot enter 2017 without upgrading their lineup. It’s important to see what the organization’s young talent can do, but trying to develop those young arms without offensive support is a tough way to go. It’s imperative the Phillies spend some money on proven bats for ’17.

Last year’s Central League Championship team

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