By Matt Chandik
Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 4/18/17
It’s not a coincidence that this is Conestoga’s best team since the tail end of its dominant run as three-time PIAA champs in 2012.
Consider what coach Brody Bush, then the Pioneers’ offensive coordinator, has at his disposal. There are difference-makers at every position, which is even scarier because there are only five seniors on the roster and a pair of projected defensemen suffered significant injuries.
Bush’s trump card, though, is that he’s got more horses than anyone, and nowhere is that depth more evident than at midfield. The Pioneers can roll out three lines without much, if any dropoff, and that lends itself to pulling away from teams.
Need proof? How about Tuesday night’s 17-7 rout of host Strath Haven in a battle of the last two remaining unbeaten teams in the Central League. Consider that the Pioneers (9-1, 5-0 Central League) put the throttle down in the second half with a 10-3 run, including nine of the first 10 goals. Seven different players netted goals in the second half, including the icing on the cake of Tommy Sopko’s phenomenal six-goal, two-assist night.
“Anybody on our offensive part of the field can score and we know that,” said Sopko, who recorded a career-best with his six tallies. “It definitely shows in the second half because we usually outscore teams.”
Conestoga stormed out of the gates when Sopko set up Hunter Gregory 26 seconds in and scored his first of the night 2:10 later, but the Panthers (7-3, 3-1) showed their resilience thanks to a pair of Liam Carney goals, followed by a Tyler Fink marker.
Undaunted, the Pioneers strung together a 4-0 run that Will Huestis briefly interrupted with a rocket of a shot. James Reilly then won the ensuing faceoff and fed Sopko, who scored with just 5.3 seconds to go. Moral of the story: whatever you can do, Conestoga can do twice as well.
“I think they were just executing on more of their opportunities,” said Carney, who finished with his second career hat trick. “We had several chances where we could have finished, but we just weren’t able to and they were.”
If you blinked in the second half, there’s a good chance that you missed a Conestoga goal. The Pioneers peppered Will Brake (nine saves) with patient, precise shots, and their depth forced the tired Panthers to play uncharacteristically sloppy lacrosse. Sopko and Henry Berg (two goals, four assists) were the headliners, as they have been all year, but Cliff Madden netted his first career hat trick and Hunter Gregory scored twice to balance out the Pioneers’ onslaught.
It was a perfect response to a 12-5 loss at the hands of 2016 PIAA finalist La Salle, Phillylacrosse.com’s No. 1-ranked team, which marked the first blemish on Conestoga’s schedule.
“Coach always highlights our depth and how it’s key to our success,” Madden said. “Coach always says, ‘Pput your bad plays behind you and focus on the next one,’ so we just treated that game like that. Forget about it and move on to the next one. It feels good. All credit to my teammates for finding me. I just got to open spots and my teammates found me.”
All three of Strath Haven’s losses have come to elite area teams after the Panthers also fell to Haverford School and Malvern Prep, and they won’t see any of those teams as they chase the first PIAA Class AA championship. Once they get to the postseason, they’ll be hardened by a daunting schedule that should serve them well.
“I definitely think that’s what Coach (Jef Hewlings) wanted to do with this schedule,” Carney said. “He wanted to prepare us for the state playoffs.”
Both teams will be well-prepared for runs at state gold, to say the least.
Conestoga 17, Strath Haven 7
Conestoga (9-1, 5-0) 3 4 4 6 — 17
Tommy Sopko 6g, 2a
Cliff Madden 3g
Henry Berg 2g, 4a
Hunter Gregory 2g
Nick Braendel 1g
Joey Walton 1g
Will Bryan 1g
Chris Cara 1g
James Reilly 1a, 10-for-19 faceoffs
Chris Tsetsekos 3-for-7 faceoffs
Kent Hjelm 1a
Peyton Jones 1a
Scott MacMillan 9 saves
Mick Lee 1 save
Strath Haven (7-3, 3-1) 3 1 1 2 — 7
Liam Carney 3g
Will Huestis 1g
Tyler Fink 1g
Ibo Pio 1g
Chris Rossini 1g
Jeff Conner 5a
Hunter Mazur 13-for-26 faceoffs
Will Brake 9 saves