Boys stay warm in state playoff win
It was so cold on Tuesday night during the PIAA Class 2A first round boys soccer game between Northwestern and Mifflinburg, that players couldn’t even feel their feet.
But at the 23-minute mark of the second half, things heated up in a hurry for the Tigers.
Kevin Slack threw wood on the fire and found the back of the net thanks to a perfect feed from Zach Creighton, during Northwestern’s 1-0 victory over Mifflinburg at Danville High School in Columbia County.
“I felt like we were dominating possession-wise,” Slack said. “We had our chances, but we just couldn’t put one in the back of the net. When I stepped out of the bus it was freezing. Halfway through the game, I couldn’t feel my feet anymore, but we just kept going on and we got the win.”
The Tigers (23-0) had chance after chance in the first half, but came up empty before intermission.
“They really put a lot of bodies in the central third of the field,” said Northwestern head coach Nathan Hunsicker. “They gave us the flanks and that’s something at halftime we talked about and wanted to take advantage of.”
The Mifflinburg defense and the freezing, wet conditions weren’t the only challenges that the Tigers faced on Tuesday. Due to a defensive injury, striker (and second-leading scorer) Kenny Gawelko moved from the top of the pitch to center back to help bolster the defense. He did whatever it took to help his team.
“That definitely changed our offensive complexion and rotation,” Hunsicker said.
There was snow outside, but there was ice in the veins of Tigers’ senior goalie Taylor Wanamaker. He made many athletic saves throughout the game; two that came at critical points during the final five minutes. His last save was a punch with under a minute left, as Mifflinburg mustered one more ball into the box on a free kick.
“He has done a great job for us all year,” said Hunsicker of Wanamaker. “Unfortunately, he doesn’t get the credit he deserves because our midfield and defensive play is so strong that he doesn’t get put under a lot of pressure. But when he has to stand up and make the plays, he does.
“He definitely proved that in the district championship game, which was a pivotal game to get us here. I don’t want to say he single-handedly won that game for us, but he made a lot of huge saves to get us to this point.”
The Tigers found a way to win despite many obstacles, a trait of a strong team. Hunsicker said they’ll have to be better this weekend when Northwestern will square off with either Crestwood or Hershey in a state quarterfinal.
“Survive and advance is the name of the game,” Hunsicker said. “It wasn’t the prettiest tonight, but sometimes good enough is good enough. But I tip my hat to them.
“They came up with a great game plan and executed well. A tip of the ball here or there, and it could have been a different outcome. For tonight, we’ll take it. But at the same time, we know Saturday will have to be better.”
With Gawelko on defense, it gave other players, such as Slack, a chance to step up. Slack’s goal marked his sixth of the season. “It was unreal,” he said. “I’ve been dreaming about that for so long and it just gave me a nice boost of energy for the rest of the game.”
The Tigers hardly knew anything about Mifflinburg. “In the beginning, it was kind of a feeler, because we didn’t know anything about them,” said Gawelko. “We knew we could possess the ball and that’s what we did all game. It just took that one chance from Kevin to finally get that break.”
Hunsicker estimated that the Tigers owned about a 70-30 advantage of possession during the win. “Possession is our bread and butter,” said Hunsicker. “It’s something we work so hard on every day at practice. It pays dividends, as you saw tonight. It ultimately led to us cracking the back of the net. The boys did a great job and responded on the fly very quickly.”
Northwestern is simply dominating this year. Tuesday marked its 19th shutout, as the Tigers are outscoring their opponents by a 93-4 margin. “I was so relieved really,” said Gawelko. “That was a hard-fought game. It was back-and-forth in the first half … They definitely had their counter attacks and some close ones too. Once we saw that go in, we realized ‘alright, they’re going to start rushing a little bit’ and we just had to play our game.”