By John Knebels
Special to The CS&T
Those out there who didn’t think that La Salle College High School would eventually prove to have the best lacrosse team in the entire state, raise your hand.
Kudos for telling the truth, but where exactly have you been hiding?
As the regular season started giving way to the post-season, the Explorers appeared to be gaining momentum at exactly the right time. After an excruciatingly close 4-3 victory over St. Joseph’s Prep in the Catholic League final, the Explorers set their goals even higher to finish the season as the first-ever winner of the PIAA state championship, as opposed to the former Keystone Cup, which La Salle won in both 2004 and 2008.
While all-American Pete Schwartz led the offense with three goals and fellow all-American senior goalie Niko Amato thwarted the frustrated opposition with 11 saves, the Explorers defeated Conestoga 7-3 at a jam-packed HersheyPark Stadium in Hershey.
“Winning this is the best feeling,” said Amato. “I’m not sure how to describe it.”
With Conestoga entering the contest with a sparkling 24-1 record, the Explorers (21-4) might have been considered as underdogs by a few prognosticators. But having “La Salle” and “underdog” in the same sentence didn’t make much sense, especially when taking into account that La Salle was also viewing the championship as a revenge opportunity.
In the season opener, Conestoga defeated La Salle 6-3, the Explorers’ only loss to a Pennsylvania opponent.
If anything, losing that contest might have been the best possible outcome.
“Conestoga is a great team, and so are we,” said Amato. “It’s hard to beat a great team twice.”
La Salle’s defense, paced by usual suspects Tucker Durkin and company, gave Conestoga all it could handle. The Pioneers seemed frustrated by their inability to maintain any offensive flow.
Whether it was Durkin, Tyler Houchins, Mike Noone, Mike Donohoe or Mark DiFrangia, Conestoga’s powerful offense was held in check.
Meanwhile, the Explorers nabbed a 4-3 lead at halftime, added a goal in the third period and two more in the fourth. It was the second time that La Salle had blanked a foe for the entire second half in a title match; the Explorers did likewise to the Prep in the Catholic League championship.
In fact, as they had done against the Prep, the Explorers needed to erase a two-goal deficit after Conestoga jumped to a 2-0 lead in the first six minutes of the first quarter.
Westy Hopkins added two goals for La Salle, including the eventual game-winner with 15 seconds left in the second quarter, while teammates Kevin Forster (with one second left in the first quarter) and Randy Forster tallied one apiece.
“Looking back, maybe we weren’t ready to play them the first time,” said Schwartz. “They took it to us. Even though we fell behind again, I was confident we’d be able to come back and play our game.”
Schwartz said it was simply a matter of the La Salle offense finding its rhythm.
“You look at how great our defense plays and our goalie – they might be the best in the country, let alone the state,” said Schwartz. “Once we went up by two goals, I think they started to press a little bit.”
And La Salle held on to win the 2009 state lacrosse title.
Truth be told, the Explorers seemed like a team that had it all the way.
John Knebels can be reached at email@example.com.