By Chris Goldberg
Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 7/20/09
Tucker Durkin says the La Salle lacrosse team had to look deep inside itself after starting a season with exceptionally high hopes by dropping its opener to Conestoga and losing three of its first four games.
“No doubt about it, Conestoga was an awesome team,” said Durkin, a defenseman. “But we definitely went into the first game a little cocky, thinking all we had to do was show up and not have to play our best game to win.
“After we lost those tough games early on we had no pressure and we used the losses as motivation. He (La Salle coach Bill Leahy) challenged the captains and all the seniors to lead. It was time for the seniors to take hold of the team and it was our senior leadership that took control then.”
Led by the two-time All-American Durkin, an unflappable goalie and a host of standout seniors, the Explorers won 20 of their final 21 games and capped the 2009 season by avenging the opening-day loss to Conestoga with a 7-3 triumph over the Pioneers in the first Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) championship at HersheyPark Stadium.
The win gave La Salle back-to-back state titles, something that hadn’t been done since Ridley won three in a row in 2001-03. It also helped erase the disappointment of a difficult start to a season that began with La Salle ranked second in the nation while practically being handed the state title.
Based on his contributions to a state champion season, Durkin has been named the Phillylacrosse.com Boys’ Player of the Year.
After the Explorers lost to Conestoga and edged eventual Colorado state champion Arapahoe, they dropped consecutive double-overtime heartbreakers to Baltimore powers Gilman and Calvert Hall. In each game, La Salle had the lead in the final seconds only to see the opposition tie it in dramatic fashion.
“I think after we lost to Calvert Hall that only added fuel to the fire,” said Durkin. “We knew we could play with anyone. We knew those losses were tough, but our ultimate goal was the state championship.”
Durkin was the focal point of a defense that many consider to be one of the best in the nation. Considered one of the top defensemen in the nation, Durkin made the Under Armour Senior All-Star Game and will play at NCAA powerhouse Johns Hopkins where he is expected to contribute immediately as a freshman in 2010.
At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, Durkin is a classic close defender who is strong enough to tie up the best attackman and quick and smart enough to excel in a man-to-man defense. A gentle giant off the field who also excels in golf, Durkin is a man-child on the field, willing to use his body for all purposes in the goal area.
Durkin and his teammates were more than willing to do anything in front of senior goalie Niko Amato, a two-time All-American goalie that was last year’s Phillylacrosse.com Player of the Year and always came up big in key games.
Durkin also said his defensive teammates – defenders Tyler Houchins, Mike Noone, Mark DiFrangia and Mike Donohoe and defensive middies Gordie Wells and Kevin Farrington – played equally key roles in La Salle’s success. The secret was communication on defense, and, of course, Amato.
“We knew Niko was amazing,” said Durkin. “He stands on his head every single game and makes outrageous saves. And when you can’t believe he can do even better, he makes an even more outrageous save.”
Durkin also credited the coaching of assistant Tony Resch, the former Philadelphia Wings great who is known as one of the top defensive coaches of all-time.
“Tony Resch is an unbelievable coach,” said Durkin. “His style of coaching is different from anyone else. He has an uncanny way of humbling you as a player.
“Even after you think you’ve had a good game, he finds a way to push you to make you even better.”
Leahy had much praise for Durkin.
“Tucker is a big, strong athlete,” said Leahy. “He’s a gifted athlete that played varsity basketball (sixth man off the bench) and varsity golf. He’s quite a body of work for all-around athletics.
“For us, knowing he was on the field as our strongest defenseman, physically and talent wise, was a plus. He always gave you great comfort, that the opposing team’s best attackman would have his hands full.
“And he gave us stability. He’s the one guy who you know is going to have a good game every game. We also used him at the face-off X; that shows you how athletic he is.”
Durkin and the Explorers picked up steam as the season progressed, defeating a strong St. Joseph’s Prep team, 4-3, in the District 12 finals for their sixth straight Catholic League championship. In the PIAA semifinals, they toppled last year’s state finalist, Manheim Township, 10-3, and geared for the long-awaited rematch with Conestoga.
“Tucker is a young man who is very mature and I think he chose his words carefully when we were struggling at the beginning,” said Leahy. “When we lost to Conestoga, he’s the guy that kept us grounded. They all looked in the mirror and blamed the right people. Niko and he are a great pair; Niko is very passionate and Tucker is kind of reserved and they balance each other nicely.”
In the championship game, Conestoga took a 3-2 lead with 4:07 left in the second half. But after that, it was remarkably held scoreless the rest of the way as Durkin, Amato and Co. continually thwarted the Pioneer attack.
“There was a different vibe in the locker room before that game,” said Durkin. “We weren’t super-serious, but I could tell everyone was focused on what we had to do.”
Player of the Year Honorable Mention:
Niko Amato (La Salle goalie)
Mike Bronzino (Conestoga defenseman)
Billy Conners (Malvern Prep defenseman)
Matt Lerman (Episcopal Academy goalie)
Dan Wigrizer (Haverford School goalie)