By Matt Chandik
Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 1/1/18
The hype had started to permeate the atmosphere around Springfield-Delco lacrosse four years ago. Even at a position that’s become the Cougars’ calling card for years, there was no mistaking that this kid was “The Next One.”
Despite that hype and the promise of being another impressive goalie in Springfield’s storied lineage, it took James Spence a little while to truly show that he could become an elite goalie.
“He came in with some hype, but I didn’t think he turned the corner until late in his freshman year or early in his sophomore year,” Cougars coach Tom Lemieux said. “He started to emerge as the leader of the group and controlling a defense full of older guys. There’s so much more that goes into it than just stopping the ball, but every kid respected him when he was a freshman.”
Four years later, that respect paid off in spades with Spence. As a junior, he led Springfield to the last unified PIAA championship with a 4-3 win over La Salle, but as a senior, he left little doubt as to who the best goalie in the state was. He stopped 60.4 percent of shots, but he also made the most timely saves. He turned aside nine shots in the District 1 Class AA title win over West Chester Henderson and a month later, made eight against the Warriors to help deliver another state title.
He did it in front of a revamped defense, too. Gone were defensive linchpins Pat Smyth and Zac Methlie, but a retooled group led by Pat Clemens helped Spence and the Cougars earn state gold again at West Chester East.
For his efforts, James Spence is the 2017 Phillylacrosse.com Co-Player of the Year. He shares the award with Episcopal Academy longstick midfielder Conner Delaney. Spence is the first goalie to win the award since 2011, when The Haverford School’s Conor Kelly (Notre Dame) earned the honor.
Much like in 2016, Spence’s senior campaign started slowly when the Cougars took back-to-back routs against MIAA power Boys’ Latin and PIAA 3A runner-up Conestoga. Staring down an 0-2 start isn’t pretty, but under Lemieux, shaky starts have been the norm before strong finishes.
“Coach told us that we were going to get everyone’s best game and we did, because everybody wants to beat the defending state champions,” said Spence, who will vie for time at Lehigh University this spring. “People aren’t just going to bow down and both of those losses really motivated us. At the end of the day, I needed to stop the ball and make the team accountable. We needed to set the bar high and make sure that everyone reached that goal.”
That, they did. Spence claimed the starting job four games into his freshman season and never looked back. He finished with a standout 77-20 record, and 12 of those losses came before April 15. In the two state championship runs, he posted a sizzling 15-1 mark. Records are team stats, but when the Cougars relied so heavily on Spence’s heroics, it’s hard to not attribute a huge chunk of those wins to him.
He commanded a defense with ease, dropped 40-yard outlet passes into midfielders’ sticks without batting an eye, effortlessly scrambled out of his cage to chase shots and often got into shooters’ heads by repeatedly frustrating them. It wasn’t only about the times where Springfield was rolling, either. His favorite game was the state quarterfinal against District 11 champion Allentown Central Catholic, where the Vikings stormed out to a huge early lead before Springfield showed its traditional resilience in coming back.
“It looked like that team couldn’t be stopped,” said Spence, who was a US Lacrosse All-American and Central League MVP in 2017. “It’s hot, we’re down by six and (ACC attackmen and Cornell commit Joe) Wolf and (Lehigh commit Matt) Marker couldn’t miss, but we came together late. Our defense was able to turn it around. We had to stop them from scoring and give our offense a chance.”
They did, and Springfield escaped with a 12-9 win en route to going back-to-back. Fittingly, he got the chance to win another state championship with his younger brother, Jack, a 2019 midfielder also committed to Lehigh.
“It’s awesome. We’re so close. We shared a bedroom for 10 years, and I wanted to show him that if you put your mind to something, you can do it,” Spence said.
And as for the older brother, Lucas, a junior midfielder at Lehigh who finished with nearly 300 career points but no state titles?
“He knows. We remind him,” Spence said with a laugh.