Boys Soccer: Penncrest midfield rises to the occasion

There’s nothing about the Penncrest midfield that jumps off the page at you. They’re poised on the ball, but not overly technical, hardly the type of players to dribble through a crowd on most occasions. They’re not overly physical, no one more than 6-feet tall.

Penncrest midfielder Nathan Hughes led a stellar midfield effort over Springfield Tuesday. (Times Staff / JULIA WILKINSON)

Penncrest midfielder Nathan Hughes led a stellar midfield effort over Springfield Tuesday. (Times Staff / JULIA WILKINSON)

But to see them dominate Springfield Tuesday in a 3-1 Central League win at Halderman Field, it became readily apparent that the whole of the Lions midfield surpasses the sum of its parts.

More impressive still was the fact that Penncrest wasn’t at full strength Tuesday. With central defender Jude Morgan nursing a foot injury that he hopes to recover from within a week, central midfielder Ryan Schultz slid back into defense. That left Ricky Vogler, usually a winger, to slot in centrally and pair Drew Hanna in the midfield engine room with Nate Hughes and Jordan Hoyle on the wings.

That group of four positively dominated possession, suffocating any attempts at a Springfield comeback. While the Cougars were wasteful with the chances that they had resulting from free kicks in the second half – and were denied a goal by right back Zach Groses’ late sliding intervention on the line – they were also stifled from open play by and large.

Much of that came down to Hanna, who also set up Sam Brown’s goal, the Lions’ third on the day, and Vogler in the middle. The first two goals, of course, were provided by Hughes as a just payoff for a first half hour of the match succinctly dominated by Penncrest.

Perhaps the biggest thing the Lions have in their favor is an identity to their midfield. They know they don’t have the physicality or skill for frequent solo efforts or attempts at dribbling exhibitions. So they play to their strengths, and the result is the kind of crisp, one- and two-touch passing soccer they displayed Tuesday.

“Communication and keeping our spacing,” were what Hughes identified as the keys. “I can’t stress how important it is talking to each other and being in the right spots so we can feed each other those balls.”

Hanna was a little more blunt.

“We’re small,” he said. “We’re all small and quick. We all grew up playing with each there and it’s nice to see it finally pay off in high school.”

The chemistry that is obvious within the team breeds an unselfishness that works to their advantage. Instead of dribbling into blind alleys, the first look is always to pass, change the point of attack and play in speedy forwards like Brown and Luca DiFranco.

“Coach (Paul) Norris always tells us to play fast and quick, and I feel like that came through today,” Hanna said. “The last couple of games we’ve been taking too many touches. But today we got our diagonal balls in, our nice possession an everyone just worked together for a nice win.”

There are some situations where I could see the Penncrest midfield being susceptible, such as against overly physical teams. But the interchange between them and the defenders – Schultz or Morgan when healthy and their partner, Dan Bullitt, who also had an assist Tuesday – helps contain speedy attackers proactively with good steps up in the midfield.

The proof Tuesday was that the move to put Vogler central was ultimately a defensive one, solidifying the center of the field with one of the team’s best possession players for a trip on the road against a quality Central League foe. But the positive effect on the attack was obvious, and that speaks to the versatility of the players in the middle of the Penncrest pitch.

“It’s so great that they have the ability that not only being a strong defensive presence, but they can work the ball up the field too if they want to,” Hughes said. “We can step back if they want to step up, and that’s just huge.”

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