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‘Conestoga boys’ are together again to help lead Drexel soccer

They won two state titles at Conestoga and now, after the transfer of Luke Smith, Chris Donovan and Michael McCarthy are reunited with their goalkeeper at Drexel.

Drexel soccer players Michael McCarthy, center, Luke Smith, left, and Chris Donovan are all teammates again after winning two state titles at Conestoga High School in 2016 and 2017.
Drexel soccer players Michael McCarthy, center, Luke Smith, left, and Chris Donovan are all teammates again after winning two state titles at Conestoga High School in 2016 and 2017.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Drexel soccer players Chris Donovan, Michael McCarthy, and Luke Smith have known each other for most of their lives. Before they played at Drexel’s Vidas Field, their home turf was Conestoga High School’s Teamer Field in Berwyn.

The two seniors among them — Donovan, a forward, and McCarthy, a defender — have been teammates since they were 10 and playing in travel leagues. Smith, a sophomore goaltender, joined them on Conestoga’s state championship teams in 2016 and 2017.

Donovan and McCarthy have played a role in turning around the Drexel soccer program, helping the Dragons reach the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament last season for the first time in seven years.

This season the trio is together again. Smith transferred from Bucknell to join Donovan, the CAA Preseason Offensive Player of the Year, and McCarthy on a Drexel team with high expectations but that has gotten off to a 2-4 start, including a 1-1 record in the CAA. The trio hopes to resume making an impact in their first season back together, which continues Tuesday at Columbia.

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“It’s been awesome being back with them. It feels like another Conestoga team,” Smith said. “I can tell it’s going to be a good year because I can tell it’s going to be a fun year. Whenever the people in the locker rooms are having fun, it’s bound to translate on the field.”

It didn’t take long for Donovan and McCarthy to make an impact on a struggling program that finished the 2017 season with a 2-14-1 record. Drexel improved to 9-5-3 in 2018 with Donovan (15 starts) and McCarthy (10) contributing as freshmen. Donovan was third on the team in points (nine) and earned a CAA all-rookie selection.

“Playing together for our entire lives, Mike and I have kind of developed a chemistry that isn’t really expected for our two positions [forward and center back],” said Donovan, who connected with McCarthy on 80-yard assists in high school. “The chemistry is there and knowing him forever is just an added bonus.”

Donovan, who leads the Dragons with eight points this season, committed to Drexel after a standout senior year in 2018 in which he more than doubled the Conestoga single-season record for goals (23) with 56. That included nine hat tricks.

McCarthy committed to Drexel soon after Donovan. Both heard a pitch for the school from their former club coach, Dominic Balsamo.

“I advised Chris and Michael on the benefits of Drexel for a variety of compelling reasons outside of just the soccer program,” said Balsamo, who played for Drexel from 2001-06. “Drexel is well respected for its academics and they are boys who are passionate about what they represent. I felt they would be great ambassadors for Drexel to help turn the program around, which they’ve helped do in their time thus far.”

Their Conestoga connection has helped them transition on and off the field.

“It’s always hard going to a foreign place we have never been before, but having somebody there that you spent time with, going through the same struggle from the daily life of preseason and other types of obstacles,” McCarthy said. “It helps having our connection within the team to get through the hard times on a daily basis.”

Smith started 13 games at Bucknell as a freshman in 2019, helping the Bison to five clean sheets, but transferred to Drexel.

Dave Zimmerman, who is entering his 20th season as Conestoga head coach, said the trio had a significant impact on his program.

“The three of them were the backbone of this team as central defender, striker and goalie,” Zimmerman said. “They were the spine in which the team was built around and they were all hard workers.”

Zimmerman remembers Donovan’s contagious work ethic during a practice when his players had to run as many 100-yard sprints as they could. Donovan was the last one running and would have kept going if his coaches hadn’t stopped him.

“That’s the kind of player he was. He didn’t have to do that,” Zimmerman said. “When one of your stars has that type of work ethic, nobody else has an excuse.”

Zimmerman was looking to bring that spark back to some of his younger players last year. With Drexel’s season pushed to the spring during the pandemic, Zimmerman reached out to Donovan with an opportunity to return to Teamer Field. This time, Donovan was on the sideline as a coach for the junior varsity team.

“There were definitely challenges, obviously being in the COVID season. Everything was just very hectic,” Donovan said. “Then just the fact of being a coach that is only three or four years older than my players there was definitely a learning curve, but I think that I gained their trust and respect by the end.”

McCarthy, Donovan, and Smith hope to bring out more of their Conestoga connection this season.

“I believe in the end the Conestoga boys will have an impact on the outcome of the season,” McCarthy said.