Tigers claim D-11 gold
Northwestern’s road to the District 11 boys soccer championship didn’t start this season. It began last year with a young team that improved throughout the season and played its best in late fall.
This year’s team, with most of last year’s roster still intact, picked up right where last year’s team left off. Then went one step further.
The Tigers earned their first district boys soccer title since 2004 when they topped Salisbury, 2-0 last Thursday at Whitehall High School.
“We had a really great run last year,” said Northwestern head coach Nate Hunsicker. “We had one bad stretch that cost us a trip to leagues playoffs but we made a heck of a run in districts. We got to the championship game. So we knew we’d be strong and come back fighting this year.”
With the best scorer in the Colonial League a strong supporting cast, the Tigers became the first team in program history to win two postseason titles.
“It’s huge,” said JD Haaf, who scored both of the team’s goal in the district title game. “We’re the first team in history to double gold medal in leagues and districts. In school history we have never won a state game so we’re looking to break that to.”
The Tigers (23-1) accomplished that feat Tuesday with a state playoff victory over Pottsgrove.
In last week’s district title game, the Falcons did their best to contain Haaf, but he eventually slipped free and made the most of a few opportunities.
Haaf, the Tigers’ leading scorer, put his team ahead 1-0 with 6:59 left in the first half when he got his foot on a bouncing ball in front of the goal and slammed it home.
“I stayed with it, kept bodying kids and it came out in my direction,” said Haaf. “I just put it in the back of the net.”
With Salisbury’s defense doing its best to keep the ball away from Haaf, he finally got another opportunity late in the second half.
Salisbury goalie Tyler Keller got a hand on his initial shot, but Haaf got the ball back and had an open net to put the game out of reach with 12:01 left in the second half.
“There was an opening in their defense,” said Haaf. “I attacked it. He came out a little too aggressive and got a finger tip on it but not enough to change direction. I just put it in the back of the net.”
That goal all but sealed the victory.
“That was huge,” said Hunsicker. “That was our whole game plan, to get that first goal. And I think their game plan was to prevent it.
“We haven’t let in more than one goal in any game this entire year. We knew when we got that second one, they’re going to have to earn if they’re going to beat us.”
Salisbury head coach Mark Allinson said his team did everything it could to contain one of the area’s best players.
“JD Haff is just a handful,” said Allinson. “He is by far the best player in the Colonial League. He can take over a game.
“We try and deny him the ball but he’s a little more deceptive than he looks. He’s got some speed to him. You look at his size and you don’t think he’s that strong of a kid but he’s muscling off our players. He has the speed and the size. He’s the complete package.”
The game marked the fourth meeting between the teams this year and 10th in the last three years. The Tigers’ won three of this year’s battles, but their only loss this season was a 1-0 overtime setback to the Falcons in early October.
“That game we won in overtime, we took it on the chin 20 times to get that one goal,” said Allinson. “To their credit, they move the ball well. They possess the ball well and they’ve got some big backs that are able to clear the ball out of the back. They get it to their go-to guy and he’s a handful.”
While that midseason loss put a blemish on what could have been an undefeated season, it might have also motivated the team to keep working hard.
“I actually think it was kind of a good thing,” said Haaf. “It put a fire in the back of your mind and just motivated you to keep winning.”
Both teams were playing without key players in the district title game. The Tigers were without senior central defender Jonathan Blaine, while the Falcons played without midfielder Ethan Heydt, who is arguably the team’s best player.
The Tigers’ season continues Tuesday against the District 1 champ. The game will be played somewhere in District 1.
The game featured the top two goal keepers in the Colonial League. The Falcons’ Keller, a junior who earned first-team honors, made 14 saves and did everything he could to keep his team in the game. Northwestern junior Kyle Bellhorn, who was the league’s second-team selection, stopped seven shots to earn the shut out. While he doesn’t face a lot of shots, the third-year Tiger starter was up to the challenge every time the Falcons tested him.