By Mike Prince
Junior midfielder Blaine Fleming scored three goals for St. Joseph’s Prep as the Hawks ended years of frustration by defeating La Salle, 8-6, today at Cardinal O’Hara, to claim their first Philadelphia Catholic League boys’ lacrosse championship since 2003.
The win vaulted the Hawks (16-4) into the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) tournament as the lone team from District 12. La Salle, which won state titles in 2004, 2008 and 2009 and lost in the finals to Conestoga in 2010, finished its season with an overall record of 14-6.
The Explorers had defeated the Prep 14 consecutive times, including an 11-10 triumph earlier this year. Seven of those 14 La Salle wins came in the PCL title game, as Thursday marked the first time since 2003 that any team other than the Explorers were crowned as league champs.
Fleming, who scored the Prep’s second and seventh goals, lined up out of bounds and 45 yards out from the La Salle goal with 13.9 seconds remaining and let go a perfect shot all the way into the empty net to score his third goal and put the icing on the cake for the Hawks.
“I was just kind of throwing the ball in the general direction of the goal and hoping it would go in,” Fleming said. “Thank God it did.
“The feeling was amazing and this is the greatest feeling I’ve ever had. It’s just – amazing. I don’t know what else to say. In my four years, we’ve never won it. The seniors have never won it and the seniors before them never won it.”
In the PCL finals over the course of the past three years, La Salle had beaten the Prep by a combined four goals, but this year was different. And as Fleming’s incredible shot – fittingly, the final one of the game – went in the net, Prep’s sideline rushed the field.
“I literally jumped in the air as high as I could,” said Prep senior attacker Bradley James, who scored two goals on Thursday. “It was the best feeling of my life and (Fleming) really put the nail in the coffin with that goal.”
James, whose brother was on the 2003 team which beat La Salle to win the PCL championship, said it was great to follow in his brother’s footsteps on the way out in his final year at the Prep.
“My brother was on the last team to beat La Salle and he always talked about it,” James said, “so it’s nice to be finally able to also talk about it with him. This was so important.
“It’s everything we worked for and we worked so hard in the offseason to get here. La Salle is our arch-rivals and they always beat us, so it’s nice to beat them in my senior year.”
The Prep got out to an early lead after senior Jeff Heath beat La Salle goalkeeper Corey Shaffer (four saves) for the 1-0 lead just a minute and 45 seconds into regulation. Just over two minutes later, Fleming found the back of the net and put the Hawks up 2-0.
La Salle fought back with three consecutive goals before the end of the first quarter, as sophomore Sean Coleman, senior Zack Jones and sophomore Matt Rambo each scored to put the Explorers up 3-2.
Sophomore Anthony Marini got the game tied up at 3-3 with a goal with 2:28 showing on the first quarter clock.
Just over seven minutes into the second, James took a pass from Heath and beat Shaffer to put the Prep back on top at 4-3, a score which would remain until the second half.
Just 58 seconds into the third quarter, James scored again to put the Prep up 5-3. After Rambo scored again, with an assist going to senior Kevin Forster, the Prep took over. Marini took a pass from Corey Scheuerle and put the Prep up 6-4, which was followed with another goal by Fleming to put the Hawks up 7-4 with two minutes and 53 seconds to play in the third.
La Salle made a game of it with goals from Jones and Rambo at the 5:18 and 4:08 marks, respectively, but the Explorers were unable to get any more big chances and after Fleming’s final shot went in the net, it was all over.
“I have to give a lot of credit and respect to La Salle,” Prep coach Eric Gregg said. “I try to emulate everything that team and those coaches have done. They’re legends and they put Catholic League lacrosse on the map and it’s really an honor to beat those guys.
“My seniors have just been phenomenal since Day 1 and even as freshmen and sophomores, they came to me telling me what they wanted to do and this is something special that we haven’t done in eight years. We’re really excited and I’m so happy for everyone, especially the seniors.”
The Prep’s offense managed eight goals against the top-seeded Explorers, but it was the defense that made the difference in the second half. Senior goalkeeper Liam Corriea, who stopped seven shots, said it was the best game he’s ever been a part of.
“Sometimes, you feel helpless standing down at your own net and not really being able to do anything,” he said, “but when that ball goes in the back of the net, it’s a great feeling. There’s no feeling like that in the world. So much sweat and so much effort was put into this and all the work we put into this for years finally paid off. It was amazing.”
The Prep will begin its road to a state title on Wednesday against District 1 fourth-place finisher Pennsbury as a site and time to be determined.
On the other side, La Salle watched its season end in disappointment. Forster, who is the fourth and final member of his family to come through La Salle’s boys’ lacrosse team, was visibly upset after the loss…
“This hurt a lot, but the past four years here playing here has been great and it’s been an honor,” he said. “To go out like this hurts, but I just don’t think we came out to play as much as they did. It’ll definitely take some time to get past this.”
La Salle wasn’t beaten in most aspects of the game, but the Explorers came up short where it mattered most. The Prep won 10 face-off’s to La Salle’s six. The Hawks finished with 24 shots to the Explorers’ 26, while the Prep was able to win the groundball department, 19-16.
“I’m confident that the better team won today,” said La Salle coach Bill Leahy, who has been at the helm for 18 years. “I thought their seniors came to play a little more than ours and we made a lot of mistakes. We have a lot of great, young kids who we’ll get back and we’ll march on.”
Rambo, an Abington transfer, finished with three goals and one assist for the Explorers, while Jones scored twice. Coleman had his one goal and La Salle also got assists from Adam Stefanowicz and Forster.
“Kevin Forster is one of the best all-around athletes that has ever played at our school,” said Leahy. “I wish I could clone him. It hasn’t hit me yet that I won’t be coaching any more of the Forster brothers.”
The Prep, which saw its fans rush the field in a frenzy, will spend the next several days getting ready for the state tournament.
“Every year, we have team goals and individual goals,” Gregg said. “Our team goal this year was to win a state championship. Winning the PCL was another one of our goals, so we know that states are next and we’ll have our work cut out for us.”
St. Joseph’s Prep 8, La Salle 6
St. Joseph’s Prep: 3-1-3-1-8
La Salle: 3-0-1-2-6
St. Joseph’s Prep
Blaine Fleming 3g
Brad James 2g
Anthony Marini 2g
Jeff Heath 1g, 1a
Corey Scheuerle 1a
Liam Corriea 7 saves
Matt Rambo 3g, 1a
Zack Jones 2g
Sean Coleman 1g
Kevin Forster 1a
Adam Stefanowicz 1a
Corey Shaffer 4 saves