The Northwestern boys soccer team beat Gettysburg Tuesday to advance to Saturday’s state title game in Chocolatetown
Northwestern head coach Nathan Hunsicker mentioned that his team had nothing to lose.
His Tigers clearly possessed that attitude during the PIAA 3A state semifinals against Gettysburg on Tuesday.
The physical game featured injuries, yellow cards, and a ton of chances. Fittingly enough, just one goal separated the Warriors and Tigers at the end of the night.
Gettysburg controlled the game over the first couple of minutes.
But when time inched closer to intermission, the Tigers started to apply pressure of their own.
At the four-minute mark of the first half, Kenneth Gawelko sprinted and chased down a lob-lead pass into the middle box. The junior headed the ball right as Warriors’ keeper Yanni Tassou extended upward and got his mitts on it. However, the ball ricocheted right to Dominc Mertz’s feet and he cleaned up the mess, which would ultimately propel the Tigers to a 1-0 PIAA semifinal victory.
“It was really all Kenneth (Gawelko),” said Mertz, who was in the right place because he didn’t give up on the play. “He hustled to tip it right before the keeper got it, and it fell right to me. It fell to the side of my right foot, and luckily it nipped the inside of the right post and went in. It was such a relief to score that goal. It helped us settle in more. We were pressing so hard and that made us calm down and play our game even more.”
The flight wasn’t smooth during the middle of the contest for Northwestern, though, as the Tigers went through some turbulence with two yellow cards. Additionally, starting defender Caleb Danner exited with an injury.
“Honestly, this is pretty much the type of game that we envisioned,” Hunsicker said. “It was adversity after adversity tonight. A couple cards and injuries, it’s heart-attack city as a coach, but I couldn’t have been more proud of my kids. We made some adjustments and tweaks and our kids did an incredible job of grinding it out.”
While the first half was back-and-forth action, Gettysburg turned up the intensity in the second half.
The Warriors outshot the Tigers by a 4-0 margin during the half. Forward Cade Wilheim had a golden opportunity with free kick from about 23 yards away with five minutes remaining. The attempt was nothing short of brilliant, but his finessed strike hooked just inches above the crossbar and snuck away from the upper-90.
Northwestern knew that it was one step closer to surviving, dodging one more bullet.
“We knew their possession is beyond any other team we will play,” said Tigers’ goalkeeper Kyle Bellhorn. “Their midfield and attack is very intense with the ball. That’s how we like to play too, so we knew we had to elevate our level. It’s a great battle between two amazing teams and it’s unfortunate they had to go out.”
The Warriors had a few more flurries in the final two minutes, but Bellhorn’s defense and midfield in front of him held strong and evaded all danger.
The Tigers truly did claw their way through a gutsy, nerve-wracking 80-minute battle. Northwestern played with a nothing-to-lose attitude, but it surely left everything out on the pitch.
“Kyle (Bellhorn) and the back line did a fantastic job today,” said Hunsicker. “Honestly, the last 20-25 minutes was really 11 guys defending as one. We preached that was what it would take to get the job done today and everyone bought in.”
Northwestern will square off with Lower Dauphin in the PIAA state Championship at Hershey on Friday at 6:30 p.m.
“I’m next to speechless,” said the Northwestern coach. “I’m so proud of these kids. I think we’re going to be a heavy underdog. It’s going to be one heck of a tough game, but we’re ready for it. We have nothing to lose.”
The Tigers are yet to yield a goal during their PIAA postseason run. “We’re one huge, cohesive unit that understands how every single one of us plays,” explained Bellhorn. “We worked so hard though the entire season. Our hard work and effort has given us the opportunity to try and do what we all hoped for at the beginning of the season.”
With Northwestern down a top-defender, Andrew Goodolf played a majority of the game on the back line. The junior normally plays the midfield and forward positions.
“Andrew didn’t question it at all,” said Hunsicker. “He did a fantastic job.”
Mertz explained that this group has been playing together for years, which makes the state final appearance a little bit sweeter. “It’s incredible that we made it,” said the senior. “We all grew up together, the connections and friendships that we have together are the best.
“Most of us have been playing together for 12-13 years. I’m excited to play in the finals for the first time.”