SPRINGFIELD — Tuesday could've served as one big excuse for Penncrest to collapse.
Coming off four games without a win, missing senior captain and defensive rock Jude Morgan leading to a cascade of formation changes, facing a road trip to Central League rival Springfield ... it could've been a recipe for disaster.
Instead, it provided a canvas for the Lions' biggest win of the season, a 3-1 thrashing of the Cougars at Halderman Field.
The crux of Penncrest's success lay in the response to change. With Morgan out, Ryan Schultz slid back from central midfield to central defense. That allowed Ricky Vogler to move in from the wing to Schultz's central midfield spot and put Luca DiFranco further up the pitch as a true striker.
The result wasn't just a solid day in terms of defense and possession, but it furnished for the Lions (5-4-1, 2-1-1 Central) the kind of attacking impetus that prised open the Springfield defense three times in nine minutes near the end of the first half.
After a half-hour of attacking possession led to few chances, Nate Hughes jumped on a through ball from defender Dan Bullitt, rounded a defender and poked home a shot to give the Lions the lead in the 29th minute.
"It was really important to get a fast start,' Hughes said. "The beginning of the year in nonleague play, we were scoring goals left and right. When we got into the Central League, we started to slow down. Our defense has still been keeping up, but it was really important to get three goals in the first half like that.'
Sixty-three seconds later, the lead was two, Hughes again getting the goal when he found space down the left channel and looped a volley over the outstretched arm of Springfield goalkeeper Mike Gerzabek.
The two-goal margin was short-lived as an unmarked Mike Wallace tapped home a cross from Andrew Astrino at the back post in the 33rd minute. But Sam Brown restored it 2:30 from half when Drew Hanna sprung him with a perfect through ball, and the striker buried a toe-poke past Gerzabek.
That was all that the Lions needed on the day, and they dominated possession from there to see out the lead in the second half. Schultz and Bullitt provided one timely step up into midfield after another, and Vogler and Hanna provided equal parts tackling menace and poise on the ball in the heart of midfield to preserve the lead.
"I feel like we possessed the middle more than the games lately, so it was nice to get the win,' Hanna said. "... We feed off each other and we've been playing together for a while at Nether Providence. But it's also Sammy Brown up top. He's going to be a beast for years up there.'
"It definitely was a different look in the game. I've played there before,' Schultz said. "But Jude is a solid player in the back; he brings some speed to help out. We had to switch it up a lot with guys getting gassed, and we had a couple of subs in there, but I think it worked out well.'
Springfield (3-6-0, 0-4-0) had its chances, but the execution on several late free kicks in which it could barely get shots on frame told the story of its attacking day. Penncrest goalkeeper Thomas Rounds had to make only two saves, both easy catches.
The biggest save of the day came from fullback Zach Goses, whose last-ditch sliding tackle on the goal line denied Dan Mackowiak's shot in the 62nd minute. The rebound pinballed off Mackowiak and somehow missed the gaping cage.
The wastefulness in front of goal was only part of what the Cougars were left to lament.
"The chances aren't as a big of an issue,' Wallace said. "We have to work on defense mostly. All of our wins have come from shutouts, and we have to work on the defense. That's our first priority.'