ERIE, Pa. – Finish the job.
The Cathedral Prep boys’ soccer program has been to the final four of the state five times since coach Sam Tojaga and his staff took over the program 19 years ago, with each of the first four resulting in the same fashion – a loss to the eventual state champion in the semifinals.
The Ramblers cleared that hurdle with their 1-0 overtime win over Hershey on Tuesday, in the Class 3A semifinals, the same Hershey team that beat them in the semifinals a year ago.
Now, it’s on to the state final at 7 p.m. Saturday against Springfield Township, the District 1 runner-up, which avenged a loss to Radnor in the D1 title game with a win in PKs in the semis. The game will be at Eagle View Middle School on the campus of Cumberland Valley School District.
“This is the 19th season for my staff and I,” Tojaga said. “It just feels like we’re getting the opportunity to finish what we started. The guys in that locker room (after the loss to Hershey last season), you don’t feel it like a senior does, but you feel like even though you gave it your all you could have done more. Those guys felt that. We don’t want to feel that sickening feeling again. We used it to drive us.”
The Ramblers are led by a talented senior class, including Noah Handzel, who scored the game-winner over Hershey, and also had the game-winner in a 2-1 overtime win over Montour in the first round.
It’s a group that has been building for this moment.
“I’ve coached most of these kids since they were 12,” Tojaga said. “To have them all through high school…it’s not surprising, to be honest, but when you’ve never been here before, you pinch yourself. The team we had last year was really good, we had all seniors across the back line. We felt like we could have won states last year. We knew we had a lot of firepower coming back with (Dylan) Danch and Handzel.”
What they weren’t quite sure of is how the defense would take shape, but it’s turned into a strength and one of the biggest reasons they’ve got to this point.
Tyler Chermack has allowed just 13 goals in 21 games, including 10 shutouts for the Ramblers (18-3-1), and that’s just the start of it.
The goal allowed against Montour in the first round is the only one Prep has surrendered in its three PIAA playoff wins and since their only tie of the season, 1-1 to McDowell on Oct. 9, they have allowed just two goals in their last seven games.
“We didn’t know what to expect, but they’ve been astonishing the last two months,” Tojaga said of the defense. “They went from a question mark to maybe our biggest asset. The pride and compete level has been incredible.”
Offensively, Handzel has led an impressive attack with 31 goals and 20 assists, while Danch has 18 goals and 19 assists. Two other Ramblers – Juan Pablo Dogre Millet (11) and Max Johnson (10) have double-digit goals on the season, while Cam Dunbar has eight.
And they’ve got contributions up and down the lineup, as it was freshman James DiSanza who scored on a header off a corner kick late in the first half to help send Prep to a 2-0 win over WPIAL champion South Fayette in the quarterfinals.
It’s a team that has only three losses on the season, all to teams outside of Pennsylvania – Western Reserve (Ohio), Lake Catholic (Ohio) and St. Xavier out of Louisville.
“We play such a hard schedule because we want to be pushed,” Tojaga said. “We don’t make a schedule to go undefeated, we make it to push us to get opportunities like this. The young guys I think really benefited from getting that experience early in the season.”
They will be facing a Springfield Township team that is back in the state title game after losing to Hershey 1-0 in double overtime last season.
“We’re going to have our hands full,” Tojaga said. “They don’t give away too many chances. You don’t see too many 3-0 games this time of year. Every game is tight, that’s the playoffs. I think it’s going to be a tight, low-scoring game.”
The Prep program as a whole is in the state finals for the third time, losing to Coughlin 9-5 in 1997 and splitting the title with Strath Haven with a 1-1 tie in 2001, before the PIAA had penalty kicks.
A District 10 boys’ team has never won an outright state title in boys’ soccer. The last appearance was in 2011, when Mercyhurst Prep lost for the second of back-to-back years to New Hope-Solebury.
And what a way it would be to go out for a senior class that includes Chermack, Luke Trocki, Danch, Handzel, Kendall Rodriguez, Jake Haugh, Kwame Anim-Somuah, Andrew DiSanza and Evan Sipple.
“I think it’s human nature,” Tojaga said on if his players have thought about what winning a state title would be like. “The preparation and the training to get to this point, you always wonder what it’s going to feel like. We’re thankful for the opportunity, but at the same time are focused.”