By Chris Goldberg
Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 6/11/09
It was a game few followers of Conestoga boys’ lacrosse will soon forget.
The 2009 season began with a shocker on March 21 when the Pioneers stunned defending state champion La Salle, 6-3. The Explorers entered the game ranked No. 2 in the country in the Under Armour/Inside Lacrosse Power Rankings and nearly everyone had pegged them as a clear favorite to repeat as state champion because they returned four All-Americans and numerous other Division I recruits.
But on that day the young Pioneers proved they could play with the best. And the carryover from that huge victory lasted all year.
“It became clear to us after that La Salle game that we had something special,” said Conestoga coach Brian Samson. “That was a great game for us to get some confidence.
“This was a team that just really played well together and really played hard in every game. They played unselfish, and as a team.”
Last Saturday at HersheyPark Stadium, the Pioneers’ brilliant season came to a heartbreaking end when they fell to La Salle, 7-3, in the first Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) championship game.
For La Salle (21-4), the win meant redemption for the only game it lost all year to a Pennsylvania team. For Conestoga, it may only be a peak at things to come.
The Pioneers had several key seniors who have graduated and will surely be missed. But they return a host of juniors – three have already verbally committed to Division I schools – and several sophomores who played major roles. Clearly, they will go into the 2010 season as a leading favorite for the second PIAA title.
In 2009, Conestoga went 24-2 while finishing a perfect 11-0 in the rugged Central League. The Pioneers then claimed the first District 1 title with a 7-4 triumph over Downingtown East on May 21. In the latest Under Armour/IL Rankings, the Pioneers were No. 13; the final rankings come out soon.
Against La Salle, the Pioneers led, 2-0, and then, 3-2, late in the first half. But La Salle tied it heading into halftime and shut down the potent Conestoga attack with brilliant defense and clutch goaltending by two-time All-American Niko Amato.
“How many times this year have we been down two goals?” said Samson. It hasn’t happened very often. I think that La Salle had more experience in closer games.
“But this was a special season; we’re certainly proud of all the guys. We have a lot of guys returning, and hopefully that experience will help them going into next year.”
The key seniors who led the Pioneers were senior defensemen Mike Bronzino (headed to Cornell, named All-American), Phil Cuddeback (Bowdoin) and attackman Paul Mita (Villanova). Other seniors who played regular roles were goalie Nick Shea, defenseman Max Schultz, Midfielder Travis Armiger and attackman Mike Ackerman. The other senior was defenseman Evan Bohner.
Three juniors – attackmen Matt Smith (Lehigh) and Austin Rogusky (Loyola, All-American) and face-off specialist Ryan Buttenbaum (Lehigh) – have made verbal commitments to Division I schools. Other juniors who played key roles include goalie Peter Zonino, defensemen Casey Ikeda and Austin Campbell, midfielders Ryan Lord, Peter Bowers, Jason Klunder and Ben Ross and attackmen Jeff Chu and Zack Jacobs.
Several sophomores also were keys to the team’s success; long-stick midfielder Brian Dailey and midfielders Tanner Scott and Kevin Rudd.
The Pioneers’ offensive success was due to a strong transition game, which featured speed, crisp passing and depth and balance at the midfield and on attack. Buttenbaum was steady at the face-off X and Zonino and Shea split time effectively during the regular season until Zonino took over full-time for the playoffs.
The Pioneers’ emergence this year also was aided by a successful showing in the club season by Mesa Fresh, which won the Battle of the Hotbeds at the University of Delaware. Much of the Mesa team consisted of Conestogs underclassmen.
“We had a well-balanced team this year,” said Samson. “If one guy didn’t hurt you, the next one did. On any given day, anyone could lead the offense and these are not the type of kids that need to score two goals a game to feel good about themselves – which is great. They really take pride in the team accomplishments.”
In the state final, Conestoga brought a large crowd. Samson said the school rallied around the team all season.
“It was really cool for our school,” he said. “We were psyched to get there. The faculty and the rest of the school rallied around us and it was a great experience.”
After the loss to La Salle, perhaps Mita put it best:
“Watch out for this team next year; it’s a young team,” he said. “I was just glad to go along for this ride; it was fun.”