If it was ever going to happen, this was the year. If there was a time Conestoga would finally drop a Central League game, it had to be this year. Fresh off of three straight PIAA championships and having 32 straight league wins to their name, the Pioneers had molded themselves into the elite PIAA program.
But even though there’s still a lot of talent for coach Brian Samson, there’s not quite the disparity there was between Conestoga and the rest of the field gunning for a state title as there has been of late. So the fact that Radnor took out the Pioneers for the first time since 2003 wasn’t all that surprising. The fact that the Red Raiders did it by a 10-3 score, though, raised a few eyebrows. Conestoga’s youth definitely showed against a senior-laden Radnor team, but the Red Raiders flat-out dominated in every aspect of the game.
If you’re looking for the biggest reason, glance no further than Jake Shapiro. Shapiro turned in a 14-for-16 day at the faceoff X and went on a 10-1 spree in the second half to fuel an 8-1 Radnor run that turned the game into a laugher. He did it every which way, too, and without the ball, Conestoga’s offense was forced to haplessly watch without being able to help.
“I was feeling the whistle (Tuesday),” Shapiro said. “I was communicating with the refs and I was in a groove in that second half. Once the team started picking it up, I knew I had to pick it up and keep it going. I knew if it was a close game, I was going to have to come out and win faceoffs, and I just kept that mentality throughout.”
But for as great as Shapiro, Peter Donato (three goals, one assist) and Mike Cherry (three goals) were, the Red Raiders’ defense in front of goalie Brendan Manderack was superb. The Farnish brothers, Mike and Tom, gave the Pioneers fits all night, and Mike Farnish even took the time to add a goal. Danny Michaelson also turned in a strong game, as did midfielder Kevin Riley, and as a unit, Radnor held Conestoga to 11 shots, including a stretch of 31:11 in between the Pioneers’ first and second shots of the game (ironically enough, both goals).
Donato, a second-team All-Delco pick a year ago, is proving his mettle as one of the county’s elite midfielders again this year. He rarely comes off the field for Radnor and does it all for the Red Raiders. His first goal was fit for a highlight reel when he weaved his way through a small army of Conestoga players and snapped a shot past Robbie Zonino.
But it’s not just the goals. The offense runs more fluidly when it goes through him and he helps the defense tremendously, a big reason why he’s one of the most indispensable players in the county and why the Red Raiders knocked off the Pioneers.
“I think we knew we had it this year,” Donato said. “We all believed we could win. There was a spark. Jake kept winning faceoffs and we just took it to ’em.”
As for Cherry, he made the transition from midfield to attack and struggled with it, only scoring a handful of goals before going off for a hat trick against the Pioneers. As he gets more and more comfortable, he’ll be another fearsome weapon to add to John Begier‘s collection.
“I’ve been struggling,” Cherry said. “In the beginning of the season, I was playing middie and they moved me to attack. I’m much more comfortable and I’m just happy to help the team and that’s what it’s all about.”
Samson has a young team, but make no mistake about it, Conestoga will be a threat for another state title. This, though, served as a learning experience.
“Radnor’s a really good team,” Samson said. “They were really ready to play, they were prepared and they just beat us in all of the phases of the game tonight. They looked great. We couldn’t get possessions and the opportunities we had to get possessions, we just made too many mistakes. We’ve got to clear the ball better in that game and we can’t make those mistakes. As soon as we got the ball, we gave it back to them. (Shapiro) was great, so when that happens, you’ve got to maximize your possessions and we just couldn’t.”
Radnor’s win dealt Conestoga its first league loss after 32 straight wins, but it also meant that it took all of five league games for every team in the Central to be tagged with at least one loss. That, of course, means absolute mayhem the rest of the way. As you can see here (ahem – new standings page alert), there is a five-way tie atop the league standings. No, seriously.
Radnor, Ridley, Garnet Valley, Springfield and Conestoga hold 4-1 records. Radnor has wins over Ridley and Conestoga, but a loss to Garnet Valley. Conestoga beat Springfield. Mayhem already. It’s a good time.
And it only promises to get better.
– MATT CHANDIK