By Ben Skalina
Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 6/4/08
Winning ain’t always pretty.
Tuesday night at Garnet Valley, La Salle exemplified that cliché as it used a gutsy effort from its defense and continued fine goalkeeping from Niko Amato to hold on for a 4-3 win over Malvern Prep in the last-ever Eastern Pennsylvania Scholastic Lacrosse Association championship game.
“We talk about being resilient; resilient in life, resilient in lacrosse,” La Salle coach Bill Leahy said. “We’ve been through adversity by losing (standout) Tyler Knarr, and they always bounce back.”
La Salle’s first EPSLA title since 2004 was also a result of strong goaltending and the way the Explorers’ defense of Eric Heisner, Mike Noone, Tucker Durkin and long-stick middie Tyler Houchins shut down the explosive Friars in the biggest game of the year.
The victory vaults the Explorers (30-2) into the Keystone Cup game Friday night against central champion Manheim Township – an 11-4 winner over western region Mt. Lebanon Tuesday – at Penn Manor High (7:30).
Malvern trailed 2-1 at halftime from Peter Schwartz and Kevin Forster’s goals that preceded Matt Mackrides’ crafty goal from a groundball scrum.
The Friars’ managed just 13 shots and one goal through the first three quarters, and scored just twice in the fourth quarter despite a 15-shot barrage.
When Malvern’s shots were on the cage, the junior Amato (Tournament MVP) answered the call for his team, making four of his eight saves in crunch time.
“I definitely think the defense played a great game, but it being the (Philadelphia) championship game, we definitely had some jitters,” Amato said afterwards. “I feel like they didn’t capitalize on their opportunities, but we were contesting everything and getting in their gloves.”
A key component of La Salle’s stellar defensive effort was junior All-American Durkin, who hounded Malvern’s Mackrides all night. Mackrides managed two goals, but beat Durkin cleanly just once the whole game.
And Durkin came up huge in the final seconds, as he prevented Malvern’s star from getting to the net on their last possession before forcing him into a double team that jarred the ball loose. The Explorers picked up the ball and celebrated as the clock ran out.
“I think it’s impossible to play a perfect game on him, he’s just too quick,” Durkin said of Mackrides. “I think I played a good game, we played a good game overall, but it was an even matchup.”
Assistant coach Tony Resch, who orchestrates La Salle’s defense from the sideline, praised the way his whole defense played, and saved a special compliment for Durkin.
“I would say that’s a stalemate, and anytime as a defenseman you can stalemate a Matt Mackrides that’s an unbelievable accomplishment,” Resch said. “He’s just grown into that type of defenseman that he can take a top guy and we don’t need to help him.”
Mackrides, who found other ways to contribute to the Malvern effort outside of his scoring, mainly through his remarkable riding skills and instincts, also had praise for Durkin.
“He’s one of the better defensemen I’ve ever gone against; it was fun playing against him,” Mackrides said.
The Penn State-bound senior thought that the Explorers did a great job of disrupting Malvern’s offensive rhythm.
“They shut us down early, and got us out of our groove right away. After that happened we tried to go to the net more and score more often and we took shots that probably weren’t good shots,” he said. “We weren’t getting the dodges that we wanted and we weren’t getting the shots that we wanted.”
On the offensive side for La Salle, midfielder Schwartz, also an All-American, led the way with two goals and an assist.
The talented junior, who is considering Maryland, Notre Dame, Duke, Princeton and Harvard for college, boosted the Explorers with his play in the third quarter and helped turn a 2-1 halftime lead into a decisive 4-1 advantage at the end of the frame.
First, he swept from left to right across the box and beat Andrew O’Connell (All-EPSLA, 5 saves) on the first possession of the second half with a hard outside shot.
Five minutes later, against increasing Malvern pressure, he shook loose of his defender and found Under Armour All-American Conrad Ridgway, who evaded one Friar and then unleashed his famed shot for the eventual game-winning goal.
For Malvern, a team that had been scoring goals in bunches until this contest, it was a night where things simply didn’t go its way.
“I thought they had a good plan, they took the middies away early and made us go with the attack,” Malvern coach John McEvoy said. “We didn’t adjust very well, and when we did it was probably a little too late.”
The Friars were also frustrated by their inability to hit their numerous opportunities in the second and fourth quarters. However, they continued to plug away and almost got even at the end, when Colin McGeehin converted Chris Layne’s find off of a top dodge and Mackrides split a double team with a sensational spinning swim move to pull Malvern to within one with 2 minutes and 2 seconds left.
“What you do is you keep shooting,” McEvoy said. “You try to get the next one and not let it get in your head, and I think we did. In the fourth quarter we got some looks and they made some great saves and we hit some pipes.”
La Salle’s win means that the Explorers will face Central Pennsylvania Scholastic Lacrosse Association champion Manheim Township in Friday’s Keystone Cup game, a game the EPSLA champ has never lost. Leahy will look for that record to remain unblemished in the last state championship before the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association takes over.
“These guys are centered men, so they’re focused and they know that they’ve got to do it one more time to be state champ,” Leahy said of his side. “They did it on ’04, and these guys will come to play.”