Deer Lakes defenders hope to maintain stellar performance in PIAA final

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Thursday, November 15, 2018 | 7:45 PM


As Quaker Valley and Shady Side Academy made late, desperate pushes for the equalizing goal in the past two rounds of the PIAA boys soccer playoffs, the same force stood in their way: the Deer Lakes defense.

Both times the Lancers’ defenders shut the door on their opponents, much as they did throughout the season.

The quartet of senior Nick Caro and juniors Ryan Butler, Alex Rodgers and Tyler Tofil don’t draw much publicity — not many defenders do in soccer — but they continue to prove effective in shutting down scoring opportunities and could have a huge impact on whether Deer Lakes brings home its first PIAA championship Saturday against Fleetwood.

Through three state playoff games, Deer Lakes (21-1-1) has allowed just two goals. The total stands at 17 for the season, with 10 shutouts and just three opponents scoring two goals or more.

“I know the four of us are really close and have been playing together the last few years,” said Caro, a four-year starter and one of just two senior starters for the Lancers. “That chemistry definitely helps a lot. (We’ve been playing together) through middle school, and even before that.”

Still, Caro admitted to some uncertainty coming into the season after the graduation of captain Eric Franciscus from last fall’s group. Although Butler, Caro and Rodgers returned as starters, Franciscus was the leader on the back end of last season’s WPIAL quarterfinalist team.

Butler moved from the outside to the inside, Rodgers moved from right back to left and Tofil came back from the midfield.

“We never really played together before, so it took a couple scrimmages to get a good flow going between us,” Butler said. “But we have a good, solid (captain) back there with Nick Caro. He’s a good leader, leads the team in defense and shows what you’re supposed to do. Me, Alex and Tyler just kind of took that example and went from there.”

The Lancers scrimmaged Class AAAA teams Butler and North Allegheny, testing themselves against bigger schools with deep and talented offenses.

Their defense continued to jell as the season progressed: They haven’t allowed more than one goal in a game since Sept. 20, a span of seven regular-season and seven playoff contests.

“There were a couple close games in the beginning, still trying to get it right,” Butler said. “But I think once we got it right after the first couple games, there was no turning back.”

The four defenders complement each others’ styles. The bigger-bodied Butler and Caro provide physicality in the middle, and the smaller and quicker Rodgers and Tofil shut down the long runs on the wings.

Caro, who also kicked for Deer Lakes’ football team, might have the strongest leg on the roster. His booming free kick led to the tying goal in the PIAA semifinals against Quaker Valley.

“I believe that we balance each other out,” Rodgers said. “Nick and Butler are magnificent in the air. They can win balls against any opponent, big or small. Tyler’s very good at marking up against people and being strong, and I feel I’m able to connect with the midfield. It’s working.”

The physicality of Butler and Caro carries up to the rest of the team, as Deer Lakes plays a grind-it-out style.

“Games that go down to the last minute like our last three games have gone down to, we play physically and wear down our opponents and end up turning out for good,” Caro said.

The backs aren’t the only ones responsible for Deer Lakes’ goal prevention, as midfielders like Devin Murray have a strong defensive presence and senior goalkeeper Jesse Greyshock is the top communicator and makes crucial stops, including snuffing out a breakaway in the semifinals.

Butler said he considered Quaker Valley and Shady Side Academy the top two offenses the team had seen yet, outside of practices against their own forwards.

District 3 runner-up Fleetwood provides the next test. The Tigers scored six goals in their PIAA semifinal win over Midd West, getting a hat trick from all-state forward Haydyn Zagorski, and have 14 in three state playoff games.

“We all build off each other,” Butler said. “A.J. Dorman up top, if he scores a big goal, it brings momentum to the team. Everyone starts going behind it, and we keep going from there.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Doug at dgulasy@tribweb.com or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.

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