Sean Ryan laughed before he told the story.

It was not the type of laugh that signaled what he was about to say was hysterically funny but the kind when you are asked to think about something you hadn't thought about for a while.

Did he remember the first time he saw Max Zandi play?

Yes, the West Chester Henderson soccer coach said, he most certainly did.

"I do still remember little shaved-head Max," Ryan said.

Back then, the center back was in eighth grade - and a central midfielder - and his middle school team had a game across from Downingtown East High School, Ryan remembered.

The Warriors coach knew about the talent the program had coming up, so he went to watch the group play.

What he saw was a preview of things to come.

As Ryan remembers, Zandi got the ball in the midfield and played a nice through ball diagonally to Frankie DeRosa. DeRosa ran it down and crossed it to Richie Schlentz, who put it away for a goal.

The team would end up undefeated that year. As for Zandi to DeRosa to Schlentz, those names soon became prominent for Ryan's program.

"He really knits the group together, cleans up a lot of our mistakes typically," Ryan said. "He is solid in the air. We are confident when he has the ball at his feet. He can initiate attacks with his passing. It isn't always the flashy play. He doesn't get on the score sheet necessarily other than assists from restart stuff but really begins a lot of our attacks that helps us break pressure."

Zandi remembers the first time he met Ryan.

It was the spring before his freshman year, and Ryan held a meeting for incoming freshmen telling them about physicals, tryout dates and different fitness tests they would have to do.

After hearing about all the timed running he'd have to do during preseason, Zandi thought, "I'm really going to have to push myself."

That first day he was on junior varsity. But he pushed himself so that by the first contest of the season he was starting.

He's played almost every minute of every game since.

"He knows the game really well," Ryan said of the three-year captain. "He knows where everyone else needs to be. He is able to organize that in front of him, and he is able to read the play well, to step in and intercept or to cover, to make those decisions which is really the role of a central defender. He gives the guys in front of him a lot of confidence knowing he is back there to clean up."

In other words, the Villanova recruit does the little things - the intangibles - that have made his team hard to beat with him on the back line.

Check that - close to impossible to beat.

In six postseason games, the District 1 Class 4A champion Warriors (22-1-1) have outscored opponents 25-4. On the season, the squad has earned 14 shutouts and hasn't allowed more than two goals in a game, conceding only 13 times total.

"Ever since that first playoff game, it clicked," Zandi said. "It has just worked out. Once the playoffs hit, it was, 'All right, this is it. All our training has come to this.' We knew we had to put in every little effort."

The effort continues Tuesday at Exeter when Henderson is set to play Elizabethtown at 6 p.m. in the PIAA Class 4A semifinals.

"It is going to be different," Zandi said. "I'm not nervous. I've played in big games. But if we win on Tuesday, that feeling will be indescribable."

What won't be different?

Zandi to DeRosa to Schlentz. Although any combination between those three would work out just fine.

It has since middle school after all.

@ka_harman