When Biglerville High's boys' soccer team arrived Tuesday at Tiger Stadium in Hollidaysburg, they knew very little about their PIAA Class A semifinal opponent, Sewickley Academy.
The Canners quickly found out the Panthers had a lot of size and were extremely fast.
Earning the western bracket's berth in Friday's championship game at Hersheypark Stadium, the Panthers' speed and athleticism prevented the Canners from ever getting anything going on the offensive end of the field, leading to a 3-0 win for Sewickley Academy (21-1-1).
"Our speed has been a strength all season long," Sewickley Academy head coach James Boone said. "All the guys that played tonight played last year when we made it to the semis."
Nine minutes into the first half, Sewickley's Steve Munn fired a shot from 25 yards out that ricocheted off the crossbar right to the feet of teammate Anthony Stinson. Stinson drilled the shot from three yards out right past Biglerville goalie Gerry Lua for the first goal of the game.
"We got a bit of a break on the first goal," Boone said. "The first goal in any playoff game was huge. It give you momentum. You always say, 'Crash the goal. It can hit the post. The goalie can block it.' We always tell our guys to keep playing."
On Tuesday evening, that perseverance and determination paid off.
"The ball off the crossbar was hard because we couldn't capitalize on anything we got," Biglerville head coach Jebb Nelson said. "It is the story of our season. If we get one, we are like sharks that smell blood, but we just couldn't get that one."
After a diving save by Lua on another long-distance shot from Munn, the Canners pressed forward to the offensive end. Midfielder Mario Ortega deflected the ball off his knee and past his defender to teammate Matt Cellucci. Cellucci's defender slipped, leaving just him and the Panther goalie Hayden Moyer. Cellucci's dribble forward was too hard and Moyer came out of the goal to scoop it up, ruining the Canners' best scoring chance.
With only 3:07 left in the first half, the Panthers' J.P Bowell sprinted down the right sideline, avoided a defender, cut toward the middle of the field, switched the ball to his left foot and drilled home a shot to the bottom right corner to give the Panthers a 2-0 lead.
"He (Bowell) was their go-to guy," Nelson said. "He was a great player. He is the finisher that everyone wants to have."
The Panthers' persistence and resiliency paid off again with 27:14 left in the second half when Max Proie took a direct kick from 20 yards out. Lua made a save , but didn't have control of the ball. While the Canner defenders stood watching, Jake Mulholland darted toward the goal for the tap-in finish.
The Canners only were able to mount three shots on goal all night as Sewickley stuck to its game plan. It held the Canners to only three corners, two of them after the game was out of reach.
"That was the goal," Boone said. "We tried to keep the ball in our end as much as possible. That way, if they did get a throw in, they had to go 80 or 90 yards. We tried to eliminate them on the offensive third and tried to eliminate their opportunities."
Every time the Canners began pushing the ball forward, they found themselves surrounded by a handful of Panther players.
"The plan was to swarm them," Boone said. "If they had a guy that had the ball, hopefully we had two or three other guys there."
The frustration the Canners faced forced them to move away from their typical game plan, something Nelson noticed from the beginning.
"I think we came in a little hesitant and overconfident," he remarked. "We tried to knock that out of practice last night. They (Sewickley) are definitely a good team."
Despite the loss, the Canners (17-8-1) made Biglerville soccer history by winning their first state playoff game in school history this year.
"We exceeded expectations a little," Nelson said. "We knew that a state championship wasn't out of it. I told the guys, if we could get by the second round, we could make a run at this thing."
firstname.lastname@example.org; 717-637-3736, extension 143. Twitter: @michaelrubin6.