|Staff photo by Brad Spahr/ Striker T-Ben Donnie, left, is back as the Conestoga boys soccer team attempts to defend last year's Central League, District 1, and PIAA championships.|
By BRAD SPAHR
Call them the hunted, the team everyone wants to beat, or even the one wearing a gigantic bull’s eye on its back.
Whatever reference you want to use to describe a squad which has recently enjoyed tremendous success, the Conestoga High School boys soccer team is certainly fitting of the crown.
The Pioneers, who are coming off a remarkable season, have earned any and all of those above titles.
Last year Conestoga finished undefeated at 24-0-1 overall. They capped off the magical campaign by winning their first state championship since 1988 with a 1-0 victory over Upper St. Clair in the PIAA Class AAA title game at Hersheypark Stadium.
Their dream season also included a Central League and District 1 Class AAA championship.
“We recognize that everyone is gunning for us this season, and no one is going to have trouble getting up for us,” said Conestoga head coach Dave Zimmerman, who is now entering his 11th year. “We definitely aren’t going to sneak up on anybody.”
No, they surely won’t.
While their opponents in 2012 will most likely be juiced up to have the opportunity to compete against the reigning state champs, Conestoga is trying to erase all memories of what happened last season for the time being.
One of the ways they are doing so, for example, is players are not allowed to wear their state championship jackets during the upcoming season.
“The goal is to really try and look at this season as its own, and not be affected by what happened last year,” said Zimmerman. “When a team has success the way we did, they almost always stumble the following year. The challenge for us is to not fall into that trap.
“One of the things we’ve done is – we don’t talk about the state championship. The players are not allowed to talk about it. That was last year.”
This year, though, has the potential to be another very special one in Berwyn.
Although some key players from last year are gone to graduation – including standout goalkeeper Clarke Fox – the Pioneers return an abundance of talent.
Highlighting the returning cast is reining Daily Local News Player of the Year Danny Gonzalez. The senior midfielder, who was the Central League Most Valuable Player last fall, had 10 goals and nine assists last season.
Gonzalez’s brother, defensive standout Andrew Gonzalez, is also back. As is explosive forward T-Ben Donnie, who netted the game-winning goal in the state title game last November.
“Those three are our senior captains,” said Zimmerman. “Those guys are going to be counted on heavily to fill the shoes of the leaders we lost.
“I think we have a lot of talent. There’s no doubt about that. The question for us is going to be whether or not the intangibles will fall into place, like team chemistry.”
Conestoga has now gone a combined 44-3-2 overall the last two years. Last season, they excelled on the defensive end. In 25 games the Pioneers allowed just eight goals. That number ranked in the top 10 all-time for fewest goals allowed in a season in Pennsylvania high school soccer history.
Oh, they can also put the ball in the back of the net. Conestoga was fourth in District 1 last year in scoring.
Ultimately the Pioneers’ goal this fall, even if they aren’t allowed to discuss it, is trying to get back to Hershey to defend their state title.
“We are trying to be realistic about it too,” said Zimmerman. “The likelihood of us doing what we did last year is small. We don’t want to look at this season as a failure if we don’t accomplish everything we did last year.
“For us the goal is to win the Central League, first and foremost. If you win the league, that gets you a high seed in districts and probably a first-round bye. The road to states for us starts with winning the Central League.”