By Chris Goldberg
& Ben Skalina
Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 2/2/09
La Salle coach Bill Leahy said it takes a lot to become one of the top teams in the country – talent, hard work, good fortune, and, most of all, good team chemistry
“We had a group of guys that was really close and they somehow had the intangibles,” Leahy said. “I have to believe that helps you win. You can’t measure that.”
The measuring sticks used to gauge La Salle’s accomplishments in 2008 spoke quite well – enough to make the Explorers’ success the No. 1 Story of the Year in Phillylacrosse.com.
By virtue of its 7-5 victory over Manheim Township, La Salle won the final Keystone Cup (Pennsylvania) championship.
Perhaps more significantly, the Explorers also won the final Eastern Pennsylvania Scholastic Lacrosse Association (EPSLA) title with a 4-3 triumph over Malvern Prep and after outlasting Haverford School, 7-6, in double overtime in a memorable semifinal thriller.
The wins capped a 31-2 season, giving La Salle the most victories of any team in the nation. Lacrosse Magazine honored the Explorers with the No. 1 ranking in its final poll; La Salle also finished fourth in the final LaxPower National Coaches/Computer Ratings and fifth in the final STX/Inside Lacrosse National Poll.
Winning the EPSLA and state titles did not come easily. In fact, even winning its 14th Catholic League title in 16 was difficult as La Salle rallied to edge stubborn St. Joseph’s Prep, 6-5.
The Explorers were a young team in 2008, playing mostly juniors, and one of their top players, long stick midfielder and face-off specialist Tyler Knarr, went down with a knee injury in late April.
But thanks to a strong defense, a balanced offense and the goaltending of Phillylacrosse.com Player of the Year Niko Amato, La Salle met each challenge.
“It’s really special,” said La Salle junior Randy Forster, who had three goals in the stte title win. “It’s amazing to be the last people to win that (Keystone Cup) and hopefully repeat next year (in the first year of jurisdiction under the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Associaition). That’s our goal.”
The Explorers were admittedly a little flat when they met Manheim in the state final. They jumped to a 5-2 halftime lead but saw Manheim (19-9) draw within 6-5 early in the fourth quarter.
La Salle, though, got a key insurance goal from All-American Peter Schwartz and held on for the final minutes as post-season hero Amato (14 saves) continued his excellence in goal.
“I think we were a little flat,” said Forster. “I guess we were a little tired, that’s not really an excuse. We pulled it out in the end.”
The win over Malvern Prep was vintage La Salle, which relied on its defense and opportunistic offense as well as the brilliance of Amato.
“We talk about being resilient; resilient in life, resilient in lacrosse,” Leahy said. “We’ve been through adversity by losing Tyler Knarr, and they always bounce back.”
La Salle’s defense of Eric Heisner, Mike Noone, All-American Tucker Durkin and long-stick middie Tyler Houchins shut down the explosive Friars in the biggest game of the year.
Goals by Schwartz and Kevin Forster gave La Salle 2-1 halftime lead. The Friars’ managed just 13 shots and one goal (by All-American Matt Mackrides) 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, 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 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.
On the offensive side for La Salle, midfielder Schwartz led the way with two goals and an assist.
The junior, who signed later with Duke, 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 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 All-American Conrad Ridgway, who evaded one Friar and then unleashed the eventual game-winning goal.
Tags: La Salle