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Commentary: A view on the first PIAA tourney and kudos to a classy showing by St. Joseph’s Prep

Tuesday, 26th May 2009

Categories Boy's/Men's, High School  

By Chris Goldberg, Posted 5/26/09

Today the first Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) tournament gets underway with eight first-round games for both the boys’ and girls’ tournaments. Lacrosse fans have anxiously awaited this tourney since it was announced in the spring of 2008 that the PIAA was starting it two years earlier than expected.

No doubt, the coming of the state tournament has generated tremendous discussion in the Philly lacrosse scene. Some from the boys’ side are disappointed that the Inter-Ac League teams cannot compete as they had previously when the Pennsylvania Scholastic Lacrosse Associations run a fantastic state tournament – the last ”true” state tourney in any sport.

But since the Inter-Ac is not a member of the PIAA, Haverford School, Malvern Prep and Episcopal Academy – the loop’s top teams this year – cannot shoot for state gold. Surely, it would have been nice to see how these teams would have fared this year.

On the girls’ side, the state tourney is most welcome for all. In the past, the District 1 champions were crowned “unofficial” state champions because most followers agree that nearly all the top teams come from District 1.

Of course, Catholic League power Archbishop Carroll never had the chance to play in that tourney. For many of the previous eight years, the Patriots would have been a formidable foe in a state tourney, and this year they get their chance since the Catholic League has joined the PIAA. The Inter-Ac league, meanwhile, remains out of state play; too bad, because this year’s Episcopal Academy team also would have been an interesting challenger.

The tourney this year has generated much discussion about fairness. While some lament the fact the Inter-Ac teams are not involved, others wonder why so many District 1 and District 12 teams are playing each other in the first few rounds while teams from District 3 and District 7 square off.

Many Philly lacrosse fans believe the District 1 and District 12 teams are by far the best in the 16-team brackets for both boys and girls. If you look at any of the PA Media Lacrosse Rankings throughout the year, you know that and the rest of the media agree about that assumption – but we’ll know for sure soon enough.

My feelings are such: I loved the EPSLA boys’ championships and the fact we had a true state champion. The EPSLA tourney was top-notch and the organization – which is still holding together – is as classy as it gets.

It’s due to the expansion of boys’ lacrosse that the PIAA has taken over sanctioning of the sport. In the long run, it’s probably a real good thing. The sport is booming in our area and growing quickly in many other regions of the state that never heard of boys’ lacrosse before.

And the growth of boys’ lacrosse can only help girls’ lacrosse grow. Already a hotbed in Philadelphia, girls’ lacrosse also is growing throughout the state. And thanks to the efforts of the Philadelphia Lacrosse Association, Tina Sloan Green and John Christmas and Eric Gregg of the LEAPS program, there is a strong chance we could see teams playing in the Public League in the next few years.

Perhaps the most talked-about aspect of the PIAA tourney is the fact that District 12 (Catholic League) only was given one berth in the state tourney. I broke the news back on July 29 that the PIAA would not consider strength of individual regions and awarded the state berths simply on how many teams were in each district.

The problem was, not all the Catholic League teams had applied for admission to the PIAA at the time the percentages were calculated. Therefore, as it turned out, District 1 got seven berths and District 12 got one for boys and girls – when it could have been six in District 1 and two for District 12 for the boys.

Still, you can’t blame the PIAA. The organization followed the same rules it uses for all sports when creating brackets and choosing state berths. The chips just fell on the wrong side for St. Joseph’s Prep.

I called then-St. Joseph’s Prep coach Dan Keating immediately for his reaction. Keating’s Hawks had lost to La Salle five straight years in the Catholic League finals and he knew this year’s Prep team was returning a large group of key players, but that La Salle had been ranked No. 2 in the nation in 2008 and was returning practically its whole team.

Keating noted that it was going to be a great challenge to make it to states. Eventually Keating had to resign and later became an assistant at Malvern Prep due to a new full-time job and Gregg took over at The Prep. All year, everyone knew that St. Joe’s would probably have to beat La Salle to get into the state tournament.

As it turned out, The Prep did have an excellent team and went into the Catholic League finals with a 16-1 record and, thanks to a brilliant overtime win over former No. 1 Conestoga at the Katie Samson Festival, a ranking of No. 2 in the state by the PA Media rankers.

Still, practically no one gave the Hawks much hope of dethroning La Salle. After all, the Explorers – ranked 15th in the country by Inside Lacrosse – had thrashed The Prep, 16-6 when the teams met on April 28 in a game that wasn’t even that close.

Still, Thursday’s Catholic League championship game at Swarthmore College was a classic. St. Joe’s held an early 2-0 lead and found itself down by a goal late in the game when it sent shot after shot on La Salle and All-American goalie Niko Amato. One shot hit the post with 40 seconds left and another clanked off the cross-bar with 20 seconds to play.

La Salle prevailed, 4-3, but the Explorers and their coach, Bill Leahy, could not say enough about the challenge they had received from St. Joe’s.

It would have been easy for St. Joseph’s Prep to complain about being left out of the PIAA tourney, or to toss a stick or throw a tantrum.

That did not occur.

Instead, The Prep coach praised La Salle and spoke with nothing but class.

“Tonight the ball just didn’t bounce the way it needed to,” Gregg said. “But I respect that program (La Salle). It’s an unbelievable staff from the top down and all their kids are exceptional. I don’t like losing, but I don’t mind losing to that program at all. I look forward to battling with them year-in and year-out.”

I also spoke to St. Joe’s senior standout Colin Fleming after the game. There were no sour grapes; he was basically heartbroken that a 16-2 team which clearly could contend for a state crown could not get into the tourney.

It’s ironic because Gregg – as co-director of LEAPS – is a major reason that District 12 may some day have many teams, coming from the Public League, and several more state berths. For now, there was just the knowledge that his team could hold its head high. It may not mean a trip to states, but it’s worth a lot.



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