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Lewisburg’s win in PIAA Class AA semifinals was a redeeming one

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Lewisburg seniors Stephen Tiffin (24), Anthony Bhangdia (9) and Ben Liscum (20) pose after winning a first-round PIAA Class AA playoff game at Danville. After losing in the state semifinals last fall, the Green Dragons redeemed themselves by earning a spot in this year’s state championship. The Green Dragons play District 7 champion Deer Lakes on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. in Hershey.

OLEY — Rewind almost a full year, and Lewisburg’s players found themselves trying to find the words after a tough loss in the state semifinals at Hamburg. Many were crying as they took the walk across the field to the team bus. Others simply kept to themselves and were quiet.

Ben Liscum was hunched over, resting his arms on his knees as he glanced at the turf, knowing the team had the ability to get to the state final. It wasn’t the way it was supposed to end in 2019.

It was a disappointing finish last year and one that stung for all the returning players.

The Green Dragons played with a goal in mind this year of getting to the state championship. Every day during the offseason and every practice since August with a goal in mind. The loss in 2019 helped provide some fuel and motivation.

On a freezing night with nasty, bitterly cold winds, Lewisburg redeemed itself from last year’s crushing loss by blanking Oley Valley, 2-0, in the state semifinals to advance to Saturday’s PIAA Class AA championship game.

“It’s definitely a great kind of redemption. Last year, we found out that morning that Anthony (Bhangdia) couldn’t play, so to be honest, I just made him into a forward, so we didn’t really have a backup,” Lewisburg coach Ben Kettlewell said. “This year’s mindset we’ve been on track and it hasn’t set us off track. So they were able to focus on the game. They knew that this was the step, we didn’t overlook it. Even though we were undefeated we knew we could be beat, so we came with that mindset that we just needed to get our job done.”

The Green Dragons want to seal the season’s redemption tour with one last victory and will look to accomplish that Saturday at 1:30 p.m. against District 7 champion Deer Lakes. It’s the fourth time in program history that Lewisburg has appeared in a state final and the third time since 2015.

Lewisburg dominated Oley Valley for all 80 minutes, a credit to the Green Dragons’ back line. The Lynx (18-2-1) were held to two shots on goal, one per half.

“It’s a variety of things. … It’s my midfield tracking back, it’s my wings doing their job, it’s our offense putting pressure on them so they sit back a little bit. It’s a variety of things that come into play,” Kettelwell said of Lewisburg’s possession game. “It’s first game I didn’t sub my defense. I felt with their size, this was one of my bigger lineups in back, I felt it was needed and they played all 80 minutes and did a fantastic job.”

Liscum fed a ball to Jack Dieffenderfer into the Lynx’s defensive third. Dieffenderfer quickly fired a shot as Oley Valley keeper Evan Solley slid to try to kick it away. Dieffenderfer and the rest of his team watched in anticipation as it slowly rolled to the far left post as no Oley Valley player was around to clear it away.

It put Lewisburg ahead, 1-0, with 22 minutes, 59 seconds left in the first half.

Liscum was clutch for the Green Dragons in Tuesday’s victory. The Penn State commit scored 11 minutes after Dieffenderfer’s goal when he got around three defenders inside the 18 and let go a shot to the upper right 90. The shot couldn’t have been more perfectly placed and it put Lewisburg ahead, 2-0.

“It was huge. Ben Liscum’s a huge player, a great player, and he made a big play in a big game,” Kettlewell said. “I was impressed by him and what he was able to do today. He stepped up.”

Liscum nearly sent in another goal in the first half. Liscum was right outside the 6-yard box and tried to sneak a shot under the crossbar, only to see it hit and fall directly down as Solley caught it before it could cross the line.

Of the Lynx’s two shots on goal, one came from outside the 18 in the first half and the second came from just inside the 18. .

“They’re a big, physical, kind of direct team that’s gonna put pressure on us. We weren’t going to have a whole lot of time on the ball individually, so we needed to make sure we fought quicker, moved off the ball, gave ourselves some options and put ourselves in the right position to make some plays and do it collectively as an 11,” Kettlewell said. “It’s the best mindset I’ve ever seen a team walk in with. They knew what they had to do.”

Oley Valley’s best chance at scoring a goal came with 5:46 left to play when Alex LaVerdure fired a shot from 15 yards out. LaVerdure’s shot went just high over the crossbar by about a foot.

While the Green Dragons celebrated Tuesday with one another and were all smiles in the freezing wind, Lewisburg knows there’s still more to accomplish. There’s one more game on the schedule and it’s for a state championship.

“It feels great. This definitely was a huge step that we needed and this senior class needed to take,” Kettlewell said as he held a Hershey chocolate bar. “This was big and they know they want the next step as well.”

That next step for the senior class is Saturday afternoon.

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