STATE COLLEGE — Soccer coaches make their players practice set pieces over and over, and sometimes their charges may wonder why they need to work on them so much.
State College boys’ coach Dan Orton has been emphasizing the set plays — free kicks and corner kicks — a lot recently and he had proof how important they can be Tuesday night.
The Little Lions scored three times on set plays as they earned a decisive 4-0 victory over Central Mountain at Memorial Field in the District 6 Class AAA semifinals.
“We got the win and it was great,” said Nick Christie, who picked up a goal and an assist. “Everyone contributed and it was awesome.”
The win sends them to the district final for a meeting with Hollidaysburg next Wednesday night at Bald Eagle Area’s Alumni Stadium.
Sam Bollinger, Joe Thomas and Ben Stout also scored for the Little Lions (10-5-2). The trio of Nate Davis. Ty LeWay and Andrew Groves combined for the shutout, although they did not need to make a single save.
Central Mountain could only muster four shots, and none of them were on goal. State College dominated with 28 shots, 17 of them on frame.
“We had a lot of confidence on the ball,” Christie said. “It’s really good to maintain possession and hammer it home when we need to.”
“We knew how they would play,” Wildcats coach Jeff Brinker said. “We played our exact game plan to how we wanted to be, let them have the ball and counter attack, but State College played a nice job tonight.”
They certainly figured out how to generate attempts on their set pieces, with Tucker Wheeler doing his job as the trigger man.
His first assist came on a corner kick, lofting the ball into a mass of people in front of the net, with the ball eventually finding the foot of Thomas about five yards out midway through the first half.
The second came just before intermission, with a free kick just outside the box that was ripped top shelf that keeper Cole Hanley was able to deflect, but Christie pounced on the rebound with his head.
“We’ve worked on them for hours this season,” Orton said. “I’m really pleased they worked for us.”
The final score came toward the end with the second team on the field, with Eli Smith sending a corner kick to the middle to find the head of Ben Stout.
“The final third is something we’ve lacked this year,” said Orton, whose team was missing three starters Tuesday out with injuries. “Set pieces have been a big part of what we’re doing, and we’re a big team. We’ve got some big players and we’ve tried to exploit that a little bit.”
Bollinger started the scoring, heading the ball into the net from point-blank range after a cross from Christie on the flank.
“We were good over the first two-third of the field in the first half but the final third was lacking until we finally had a great run on a great ball and a great delivery,” Orton said. “That broke the ice.”
With several players on the field who were key contributors to a run as far as the PIAA semifinals last season, and the team surviving their first season in a loaded Mid-Penn Conference, the Little Lions are ready for the postseason.
“It’s a lot less of a shock,” Christie said. “I remember last year when we got into states, Cumberland Valley (in the first round) was this big, scarey team that was more aggressive than anyone we had ever faced. Some of the teams we played didn’t have that aggressiveness. Now that we’ve moved into the Mid-Penn, we’re a lot more ready for it. We’re a lot more hungry and ready for a lot more wins.”
Thanks to all that experience, the Little Lions now feel they are the aggressive team.
“We definitely shocked Central Mountain,” Christie said of the aggressiveness. “I don’t think think they were exactly ready for it. It was everyone coming out and being ready.”
Now comes a tough task — a long wait. With eight days until the district final, after playing 2-3 games per week since September, the Little Lions will try not to get stale.
“It’s going to be pretty tough,” Christie said. “But we’ll get a few practices under our belts before the game on Wednesday, and even if we’re not practicing together we’ll be getting some runs in ... so I’m stoked.”