LEWISBURG — After his team lost to Lewisburg in the Class 2A state semifinals Tuesday, longtime Oley Valley coach Shawn Meals called the Green Dragons “the best team” he’s seen.
“What makes us really good is we have 11 really solid starters, who do their job and do it to the best of their ability,” Lewisburg senior Ben Liscum said. “Then we’ve got guys who come off the bench and not only match that, but they bring something else to the table. They bring a new look. ... I think our versatility is huge this year.”
Lewisburg (21-0) has outscored its six playoff opponents by a combined score of 36-1 — including 12-0 in three state playoff games. The Green Dragons face District 7 champion Deer Lakes in the state final at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.
“We have an insane group of guys together,” senior Jack Dieffenderfer said. “We all really want this. We’ve made it to the semifinals three times in the last four years. Now that we’re (in the state final) it means a lot to everybody.”
The Green Dragons reached the state semifinals in 2017 and 2019, but were unable to take the next step to get to Hersheypark Stadium until this year.
“We were really strong last year,” Liscum said. “We had some inexperience, some players who hadn’t been there. This year coming back, we had a bunch of players who knew what it was like to play deep in the state tournament.
“What’s really cool this year is we get to take this final step together. No one has been here before, and been able to play in Hersheypark.”
Lewisburg’s offense has been impressive all season, scoring 151 goals in 21 games for an average of 7.2 goals per game.
“We have many different ways to score,” senior Anthony Bhangdia said. “Last year, I think there were three or four kids we relied on to score. This year, we have eight or nine kids who can put up a goal and it wouldn’t be a surprise. We have a lot of versatility.”
Even with the goals coming from several different players, Bhangdia, Liscum and Dieffenderfer have led the way. Bhangdia (36), Liscum (34) and Dieffenderfer have combined to score 98 goals. James Koconis has also reached double-figure goals, and Stephen Tiffin has added nine.
“It’s definitely a lot of fun playing offense this year,” Bhangdia said. “There are so many combinations, so much variety and trust in one another. We have trust that the person next to us is going to do the right thing and play well.”
The Green Dragons have not only multiple players who can score, but multiple ways in which they can score. Lewisburg can play long direct balls for a forward to run onto, or a possession-based attack that lulls the opponent by stringing dozens of passes together. The Green Dragons also have players who can win one-on-one battles, and are dangerous on set pieces.
“I’ve said all year that it’s brilliant to be a part of; I absolutely love it,” Liscum said. “Last year, we were a bit more direct. ... This year, we have the midfielders to be able to play tiki-taka (a quick-passing possession-style popularized by Spain’s national team) and draw teams out. At the same time — if they’re not going to respect our speed and they want to press us — we can easily just start pinging balls and allow James and Jack to run onto them.
“Or we can keep possession and play balls into Anthony’s feet to keep the ball. There’s so many ways we can build. It’s been fun to be a part of.”
More than offense
As dominant as Lewisburg’s offense has been, its defense has been just as good. The Green Dragons have allowed only five goals this season.
“We do our jobs well,” Lewisburg coach Ben Kettlewell said. “We know our roles. A lot of the guys aren’t trying to do too much. We’ve bought into the idea that you’re only as good as the team is.”
The defense also speaks to the depth in front of junior goalkeeper Tony Burns with seniors Eli Adams, Alan Daniel and Lucas Jordan, and juniors Simon Stumbris, Caleb Kim and Ian McKinney playing key roles.
“Eli does a really good job of upping our intensity, and he’s a really good later,” Daniel said. “Kettlewell has preached all year that we don’t have to win the ball, we just have to delay. That allows for back pressure. If we delay and the back pressure, the other team is going to have a difficult time playing balls.
“We have a level of trust and communication that brings us all together.”
Not just talent
Last year’s loss in the state semifinals taught the Green Dragons a hard lesson.
“I think last year, we were a little — I don’t know — pompous, and we kind of assumed we were going to win,” Daniel said. “What we did in the summer and what we’ve done all year was based on not wanting to feel that again. That loss fueled us.
“We have more of a do-anything-it-takes mentality.”
That has pushed Lewisburg to work even harder this season.
“Our mindset coming into every practice and game is we’re not going to get outworked,” Bhangdia said. “The intensity level at our practices is unmatched. I guarantee there’s not another team in the state that is working as hard as us. Our mentality is to be the hardest-working team.”
The depth of the Green Dragons allows the team to go hard against good competition in practice every day.
“They all work at what they want to do to get better,” Kettlewell said. “They compete at practice, and they all try to help each other out. No one goes, ‘Look at me, I’m better than this guy.’ They all want what’s best for the team, and I commend them.”
District 7, which is where Deer Lakes is from, has sent the most finalists to the Class 2A boys soccer game since the sport went to three classes in 2000. There are now four classes in boys soccer.
The Green Dragons defeated a District 7 team in both the 2015 and 2016 state finals. Deer Lakes was a state finalist in 2018, so there are also players on that team with state experience.
“I think it’s the depth of their district, in that they’re guaranteed to have a good team come out,” Kettlewell said. “If you can get through that, you’ve been battle-tested. District 7 does not produce a Cinderella-story-type of team, it’s a team that knows how to play.”