Senior Phil Cuddeback and the Conestoga boys’ lacrosse team passed a major test today and graduated to the first-ever Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) Championship game.
Just hours after notching an impressive 9-4 state semifinal victory over Central League rival Springfield-Delco at Harriton, Cuddeback took part in another graduation; this one of a different variety, as he donned a cap and gown and received his high school diploma.
“I’m going to remember this day for a long time,” Cuddeback said. “It’s just special to be able to go to the state championship for the first time. I am thankful that we won and now I’m ready to graduate. It’s a great day.”
It certainly was a tremendous all-around day for the Pioneers, who proved their mettle in another tour de force effort. The teams were deadlocked at intermission, but Conestoga scored six out of seven total goals in the second half and was boosted by a dominant defensive performance.
The Pioneers (24-1 overall) move on to the finals Saturday (2 p.m.) at HersheyPark Stadium where they will face La Salle, a 10-3 winner over Manheim Township. The Explorers, who won the final Keystone Cup championship last year when three Pennsylvania Lacrosse Associations sponsored the state tourney, are ranked No. 1 in the state in the PA Media Rankings while the Pioneers are No. 2. Conestoga defeated La Salle, 6-3, when the teams met in the season’s first game.
“They make a lot of plays, work hard, keep their heads up and find the open man,” said Pioneers coach Brian Samson, whose team previously defeated Springfield, 12-9, back on April 21 en route to a Central League title. “And now we have a trip to Hershey because of it, and it’s a great feeling.”
The contest proved to be a chess match early on as both squads played at a controlled, methodical pace. And for the first two quarters, the game was a seesaw affair highlighted by six lead changes. Conestoga grabbed a 3-2 edge in the second when Kevin Rudd scored with 5:20 to go on a terrific transition goal.
However, following a Pioneer turnover late in the stanza, Springfield LSM Joe Addona went coast-to-coast and scored on the run with just 2.9 ticks remaining. The late tally seemingly gave Springfield (19-6) new life, but simultaneously lit a fire under Conestoga.
“We knew after halftime that we had to get the job done,” said Cuddeback, a Bowdoin recruit, who was a force on defense for the Pioneers. “We came out pumped, fought hard and ended up with a tie after the first half. And then going into the second half, we knew we had to do something or else we were going home.”
Despite scoring just two goals in the third quarter, the Pioneers put forth an impressive effort and dominated in nearly every facet of the game. With its aggressive defense forcing turnovers and its offense continuously peppering the Springfield cage with quality shots, Conestoga took its game to another level.
The Pioneers grabbed the lead for good, 4-3, when attacker Austin Rogusky scored with 9:31 to go in the quarter thanks to a perfect feed by Tanner Scott on transition. Next, Matt Smith notched the first of his game-high three scores with 2:16 to go on a dish from Jeff Chu and extended Conestoga’s advantage to 5-3 after three periods.
The Pioneers outshot the Cougars 13-5 in the stanza, won all three face-offs and dominated the time of possession. All the while, Springfield goalie Austin Kaut was outstanding and kept his team within reach thanks to many acrobatic stops and point-blank saves. The junior made eight saves in the quarter alone and finished with 17 on the day.
Conestoga carried over its strong performance to the fourth quarter and put the game away within the first five minutes. Peter Bowers made it 6-3 with 10:31 to go on a right side blast before Chu followed with his second goal at 7:03 on the heels of a Springfield turnover.
“We’re disappointed,” Springfield head coach Mike Friel said. “We gave up some transition goals and needed to capitalize better on offense. Our goalie had 17 saves and without him, it could have been a lot worse. Conestoga doesn’t have many weaknesses. They get good leadership, especially on the defensive end, and have a lot of strengths.”
After Springfield cut its deficit to 7-4 with a score by Joe Venit (two goals) with 6:04 remaining, the Pioneers continued to play up-tempo, won the remaining face-offs and prevented their rival from making a late comeback. Smith notched two more scores to close out the game and allow his team a chance to visit Chocolate Town.
“I’m really excited and glad we are playing in the championship,” Cuddeback said. “Last year, we thought we had a good team and could go all the way, but this year we got the job done.”
Conestoga 9, Springfield-Delco 4
Springfield-Delco 1 2 0 1 – 4
Conestoga 1 2 2 4 – 9
Springfield-Delco goals: Joe Venit 2, John Cugini, Joe Addona.
Conestoga goals: Matt Smith 3, Jeff Chu 2, Kevin Rudd, Mike Ackerman, Peter Bowers, Austin Rogusky.
Goalie saves: Austin Kaut (S) 17; Peter Zonino (C) 6.