By Matt DeGeorge
For Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 5/24/19
It was the summer of 2016, just after Dox Aitken had graduated from Haverford School. He sat at home watching the NCAA men’s lacrosse Final Four in Philadelphia, watching underdog Brown giving top-seeded Maryland all it could handle.
“I had heard all year about Brown’s pace of play and how carefree they play and how good their offense was,” Aitken said Friday. “I remember how exciting that game was. I was like, ‘Dang it’d be pretty cool to play in that system.’ And summer came along and I found out that coach Tiffany and his staff are coming. And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s sweet.’”
Three years later, Lars Tiffany and Aitken are in Philadelphia again, united in the goal of reestablishing Virginia as a national power. Tiffany has UVA in its first Final Four since 2011, taking on ACC rival Duke in the first semifinal at Lincoln Financial Field at noon Saturday. That’s followed by defending national champion Yale battling first-time Final Four participant Penn State at 2:30.
Aitken (2016 Phillylacrosse.com Co-Player of the Year) is part of a strong Southeastern PA contingent at Virginia that includes leading scorer Matt Moore of Garnet Valley, the first Virginia player ever to have 40 goals and 40 assists in a season; midfielder Jeff Conner (2018 Phillylacrosse.com Co-Player of the Year) of Strath Haven and reserve faceoff man Justin Schwenk of Spring-Ford.
The group is part of a generation that has brought Virginia back from an 18-game losing streak in the ACC to return the five-time NCAA champs to national prominence.
“It’s just bringing Virginia back where it’s supposed to be,” Moore said. “The 2006 team (which won the national title at the Linc), they were in the Final Four every year. We just wanted to bring it back where it’s supposed to be, and the coaches have done a great job with that.”
Penn State similarly draws on heavy roots in the Philly area.
Penn State also features three players from Malvern Prep – Seamus Glynn, Jack Traynor and Jordan Donaghy – and a pair of Avon Grove poles in starters Nick Cardile and Brayden Peck. Saturday’s semifinal will bring those two into contact with Avon Grove grad Bryce De Muth, who’s playing significant minutes as a freshman defenseman at Yale. The Elis also feature key starter Chris Fake (Hun School) on defense.
Yale handed Penn State its only loss back in February. Avon Grove defensive bragging rights are up for grabs again, and De Muth will be pitted against former NXT club teammate TJ Malone, now a Nittany Lion.
“It’s going to be weird,” De Muth said. “It was weird when we played them earlier, but it’s cool at the same time. I saw them last night at the Battleship. We were talking and stuff. I think all of us are pretty competitive, so tomorrow we won’t be as friendly.”
Penn State’s strongest contingent hails from Haverford School. Grant Ament leads the team with 118 points (and already owns the all-time single-season NCAA assist record of 91) and was named a Tewaaraton Trophy finalist and All-American. Chris Sabia is an All-American defender. Malone has carved out a niche with 30 goals, and Johnny Nostrant provides midfield depth at the short-stick.
For seniors Sabia and Ament, lifting the Nittany Lions’ first national title would be the perfect ending.
“It’s a homecoming,” Sabia said. “It’s a dream come true, not only to be in championship weekend, Final Four and all that, but to get to do it in Philadelphia at the Linc, it doesn’t get any better than that.
“I don’t think I ever thought I’d be here on this stage. I always wanted to, but you never really see it happening until it starts happening before your eyes.”
It also comes at an interesting time for the Fords program, with longtime coach John Nostrant announcing last summer that this season would be his last. This spring, he guided the Fords on a tremendous run through one of its most difficult schedules before losing in double overtime to Malvern Prep Tuesday in the Inter-Ac tournament final.
With his relationship to the younger Nostrant, Ament has had a front-row seat to what the coach has gone through in transitioning from Haverford School to a job at Baltimore powerhouse Gilman next year. And Ament knows he wouldn’t be having the conversation Friday if not for Nostrant’s influence.
“Besides (Penn State coach Jeff) Tambroni, he’s the most influential coach I’ve ever had. I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it,” Ament said of Nostrant. “He’s an incredible role model for all of us and put us in this position. He demanded our very best every day, and he still does to the players that he coached up until the other night.
“(He) couldn’t finish it against Malvern, but all the respect to coach. I think having him at all of our games, it really brings me back down to earth because he’s going through a tough time in his life, a tough transition.”
The memories of being spectators at Final Fours at the Linc are profound for many of the Philly connections. Getting to play there brings it full circle.
“It’s just awesome being at the Linc,” Aitken said. “I love the Eagles a lot. They’re my favorite football team and we’re all sitting in the stands here and just being able to walk and play on this field is a dream come true.
“And it’s been a dream of mine to be in the Final Four and play for Virginia lacrosse, so that’s just another dream coming true. And I have my friends and family all around me at just a really cool time in my life.”
Penn State also features senior midfielder Matt Donnelly (Clearview Regional-NJ), junior midfielder Brandon Stern (Cherry Hill West-NJ), sophomore midfielder Mike Shinske (Shawnee), sophomore midfielder Malcolm Glendinning (Springside Chestnut Hill Academy), sophomore defenseman Jake McCaughan (St. Augustine Prep), freshman midfielder Brett Hobbs (Salesinaum School) and freshman defenseman Brett Funk (Shawnee).