By John Knebels
Special to The CS&T
It could be argued that St. Joseph’s Prep entered last week’s Catholic League lacrosse championship against La Salle College High School with a major psychological advantage.
This, despite the fact that La Salle was the five-time defending champion, was heavily favored and had defeated the Prep by 10 goals during the regular season.
“We had everything to gain and nothing to lose,” said Billy Bonner, one of several Prep senior standouts who helped keep the Hawks among the area’s top teams this season. “They were definitely the favorites.”
When the game was over, and La Salle had emerged with a come-from-behind 4-3 triumph, it was difficult to find a Prep player who was pleased, considering the Hawks almost stunned a program that has pretty much owned Catholic League lacrosse to the tune of 14 championships in the past 15 years and now six straight.
The fact that nine of those titles have come at the Prep’s expense didn’t help morale very much either, nor did the fact that last year’s 6-5 loss to La Salle in the final was just as heartbreaking.
“Sometimes the scores don’t show it, but we battled them for the past four years,” said Bonner, a product of Grey Nun Academy in Yardley. “We’ve continued to improve. We came out strong in the championship. We weren’t really nervous because we expected to win.”
The Prep took a 1-0 lead and, after La Salle tied the game, forged ahead 3-1 in the second quarter. An upset appeared to be a distinct possibility.
But on the defensive side of the ball, Prep junior goalie Mike Zikoski fully recognized that a two-goal lead on La Salle wasn’t exactly enough fuel to start making post-game celebration plans.
“The way they can score, a 3-1 lead was nice but it was unrealistic to think that anything less than six goals would be enough to get the win,” said Zikoski, a graduate of Our Lady of Good Counsel School in Southampton. “It was still so early.”
Sure enough, the Explorers scored the next three goals and led 4-3 heading into the fourth quarter. Despite some intense pressure, the Prep was unable to find the equalizer.
In the final four minutes of regulation, the desperate Hawks peppered the Explorers with all they had left, and it almost provided spanidends inside the final 40 seconds. But two would-be goals clanged off La Salle’s post, and when the horn sounded, the unflappable Explorers emerged as Catholic League champions.
For the Prep, Groundhog Day had once again commenced.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Zikoski. “We worked so hard. At the end, we came so close. It’s sometimes hard to watch because being a goalie, there really isn’t anything you can do.”
Along with snaring the championship on the field, La Salle’s players were impressive winners where it counted even more – in the sportsmanship department. Several Explorers raved about their rivals’ effort. Some even said they felt badly that the Prep won’t be able to participate in post-season district play.
“They’re one of the best teams we’ve played all year,” said Westy Hopkins, whose two goals included the game-winner in the third period. “After the way we beat them the first time, for them to come out and play this well says a lot. They are very talented.”
La Salle goalie Niko Amato, again superb when it counted most, agreed.
“That was the most hard-working win all year,” he said. “They kept coming at us until the very end. A couple of their shots missed by a few inches. You can’t get much closer than that.”
Zikoski credited his defense for allowing the Hawks a last-gasp opportunity. In particular, junior John Gregitis, senior Ryan O’Hara and junior brother Steve O’Hara did their best to blanket La Salle’s powerful offense.
“Some of the La Salle players said afterwards that they were really impressed with our effort,” said Bonner. “They complimented us for coming out strong and not holding back. It was a great game.”
A great game that ended the way it always seems to end in Catholic League lacrosse – with a La Salle championship.
John Knebels can be reached at email@example.com.