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When Mechanicsburg doesn’t play like Mechanicsburg — which typically means push, push, push the tempo and fluster the opposition — that usually means trouble is going to follow for Tony Lougee’s aggressive Wildcats.
And it did.
Conceding a pair of goals to Bryan Franco — one on a restart and the second on a turnover deep in its own territory — Lougee’s Wildcats dropped a 2-0 verdict to a quality Reading side in the first of two District 3-AAA semifinal-round contests Tuesday night at breezy Hersheypark Stadium.
Raul Zamora added two saves as Mike Cahn’s Red Knights (21-2-0) — Reading picked up its 13th clean sheet — sped into Saturday’s District 3-AAA championship game against Lower Dauphin. Game time is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
It’s Reading’s first trip to a 3-AAA final.
Brandon Diehl finished with eight stops for Lougee’s Wildcats (16-5-0) — including several dandies — who must wait until Saturday’s title game wraps up to find out where they’ll spend the opening round of the state playoffs.
“They’re fast. They’re like the fastest team I’ve seen in a long time,” Lougee said. “They make you make a decision. They make you decide whether to go back-and-forth with them or sit back and just try to hang on.”
For much of the first half — even though Zach Sherman’s header in the second minute sailed just over the crossbar — Lougee’s ‘Cats sat back and tried to hang on. For much of the second, they decided to go back-and-forth with the Knights. Regardless of the approach, Mechanicsburg never caught up.
Franco’s first goal — which materialized in the sixth minute when Oliver Calvo unleashed a restart from the right wing that somehow managed to spin all the way across the crease for a tap-in at the far post — caused Mechanicsburg to stop playing confidently and briskly as Mechanicsburg usually does.
“I’m sure this happened to a lot of teams that have played Reading,” Lougee surmised. “That first goal and then their speed, I thought, just took us out of our game. We stopped being aggressive and we were real tentative.
“We can’t play like that. So, until the second half when we started pressing again, we gave up 30-some minutes when we didn’t put them under any pressure at all.”
Plus, the Wildcats lost plenty of physical battles — especially in the heart of the midfield whenever Edwin Navas decided he wanted the ball and the sophomore they call “Man Child” was determined to gain possession.
Even if it meant wrecking an opponent.
Navas, however, is more than just a traffic cop.
Extremely talented with the ball at his feet, and particularly when it’s on his left, he’s another integral part of Reading’s devastating attack.
“Edwin is a key piece in that center defensive mid for us and that lets Oliver work in there at attacking mid, so that’s important,” Cahn admitted. “If we don’t have Edwin, Oliver can’t do what he does. That helps a lot.
“He’s great. He’s got great skills.”
All of Reading’s attacking players do.
And when the Red Knights are sitting on the upper end of the scoreboard, that’s a problem for the guys trying to chase the game and catch up.
“First goal’s always important, changes the game,” Cahn said. “We’re an attacking team, so it definitely helps us to get out there and get that goal. Kind of the complete opposite of the last game against Dallastown, where I thought we played great but we didn’t get the goal [until late in a 1-0 win in Saturday’s quarters].
“It changes everything. They’re a great team. They played great. It was a battle the whole way. We just battled for that second goal. Their goalkeeper was incredible. He made a couple incredible saves, incredible saves.”
Even before Franco cashed in the first time, Diehl had to dive to keep a Christian Garcia shot from skipping in. Even after Franco pushed the Red Knights in front, the junior netminder used his body to absorb a redirect from teammate Kyle Flemmingthat was struck hard enough to poke a hole in his belly.
Another Reading pop — Omar Guzman’s header off Calvo’s corner — glanced off the crossbar and prevented the Knights from expanding on their first-half lead.
Something they never did.
And while Mechanicsburg picked up its intensity after the break — Sherman had several chances go high or wide — the Red Knights continued to make Diehl work between the posts just to keep the Wildcats within one.
Yet when Anthony Panuccio gave the ball back to the Red Knights on a short, misdirected clearance, Franco pounced on the opportunity and cashed in.
That second goal Reading wanted so badly finally had arrived.
“Turn the ball over in the middle third against these guys and it’s just brutal,” Lougee lamented.
“They score a ton of goals. We score a lot of goals,” Cahn said, referring to his pre-game message. “We’re both attacking teams, so it’s going to be who takes advantage of their opportunities. We felt good.
“I wish we could have gotten the second goal earlier, but I give [Mechanicsburg] all the credit for that. Their defense and their goalkeeper were just incredible. Against other teams, we would have had that second goal in the first half.”
While Zamora received plenty of support from center back Bryan Alvarado and flank defenders Cesar Flores and Jairo Ordonez, he took care of a Sherman try in the 69th minute that appeared headed for the underside of the crossbar.
Lougee’s ‘Cats generated one more quality scoring opportunity, but defender Mike Fowler’s restart glanced off the right post and scooted away.
Reading was headed for its first 3-AAA title game.
“These kids, they just earn it, they deserve it,” Cahn said. “That’s what I told them before the game and I told them again at halftime. It’s their time.
“We watched ‘Miracle’ about three-quarters of the way through the season,” Cahn added, referring to the film about the United States’ ice hockey team winning the 1980 Olympic gold medal. “We took a day off when we were beat up and it was bad weather. I reminded them of the line in there when Kurt Russell says before the Russia game, he’s like, ‘They’ve had their time, this is our time.’
“These teams, Dallastown, Hempfield, Wilson, they’ve had their time. This is our time. This is what we’ve been working for all this time.”
And while Reading will be playing in Saturday night’s District 3-AAA championship game, Lougee will spend the next week or so trying to rebuild his Wildcats’ confidence while getting them ready for a trip to southeastern Pennsylvania — or, perhaps, a journey to northeastern Pennsylvania.
States await Mechanicsburg, too.
“I think these guys will be fine,” Lougee said, referring to the Wildcats’ first PIAA playoffs appearance since 2010. “They just need to remember that we need to be who we are and just play. There’ll be a lot of great teams in states.
“I hope we just represent well.”
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For the full article and photos of the game, click here.
HERSHEY — Mechanicsburg was coming off a huge upset of Hershey on Saturday and traveled to Hersheypark Stadium for a contest against District 3-AAA No. 2 seed Reading.
The Wildcats couldn’t pull off that second upset and fell to the Red Knights, 2-0, in the 3-AAA semifinals Tuesday night.
Despite the loss, Mechanicsburg (16-5) still qualified for the upcoming PIAA tournament but won’t know its seed until the finals are played on Saturday. It will be the third seed if Reading wins the district title for the first time ever or the fourth seed if either Lower Dauphin or Central York wins the title.
“I thought we came out well but we started to back off a bit when they started to use their size and speed,” Wildcats coach Tony Lougee said. “They are very fast and skilled at every position and we couldn’t get much space and they had too much space. We tried to play too quickly at times when we had the time to settle and play. We have time to regroup for our next game next Tuesday in the state tournament.”
Mechanicsburg earned three corner kicks in the opening four minutes but its only shot was a header by Zach Sherman that just sailed over the crossbar.
Reading (21-2) started to get in on the offensive attack and Angel Orozco got a shot off that rolled to Wildcats keeper Brandon Diehl. On its next possession, Oliver Calvo was in the right corner when he was taken down. His restart sailed right through the crease where Bryan Franco was on the back post and tapped it right into the net, just 5:56 into the game.
“That first goal is so important because it can set the tone for the game,” Reading coach Mike Cahn said. “In every game you usually see a five-minute stretch where you just seem to be under siege and we saw it early. I told our kids we just needed to weather the storm and do whatever you can to not make it worse.”
The Red Knights almost doubled their lead moments later, with some assistance from the Wildcats defense. A short from Christian Garcia from the left side was deflected by Mechanicsburg defender Kyle Flemming. His deflection ricocheted off keeper Brandon Diehl, but fortunately Diehl was able to snag the ball.
Reading did a good job of moving the ball from side to side but wasn’t able to put another shot in the net.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats spent much of the half trying to free Zach Sherman down the middle, but central defender Bryan Alverado, as well as Jairo Ordonez and Edwin Navas seemed to limit space for Sherman, forcing him to go outside rather than inside.
Mechanicsburg came out with some energy in the second half but couldn’t get the equalizer, despite having several attempts. Sherman headed one wide and Mike Fowler ripped one just off the far post.
Reading took advantage of a Wildcats giveaway in the second half to take the two-goal lead. Franco again took a dribble past the right back and fired a low shot into the far corner for his second goal of the game.
“I was reminding our kids just before the game that no team is going to lay down at this point of the tournament and the winner is the team that takes advantage of a mistake,” Cahn said. “We took advantage of two mistakes and scored two goals.”
Reading played a physical, hard-nosed game. Navas and Alverado did an excellent job of containing the Wildcats attack and directing it away from their keeper. The Red Knights were quicker to most 50-50 balls and were able to dictate the game.