John Knebels
Sports Columnist

Patience being a virtue, St. Joseph’s Prep lacrosse fans probably have earned some major purgatory points over the past several years.

The goal? Win a Catholic League championship. The method? Find a way to defeat perennial champion and uber-rival juggernaut La Salle High School.

The Prep’s faith was rewarded on a hot afternoon on May 26 at Cardinal O’Hara High School. Led by junior midfielder Blaine Fleming’s three goals, the Hawks skinned their way past the startled Explorers, 8-6.

It was the first time since losing the final to the Prep in 2003 that La Salle did not emerge victorious. {{more}}

“My dad is probably dancing in heaven for me right now,” said Prep coach Eric Gregg Jr., the son of the late former major league umpire and Philly native Eric Gregg. “We had to beat a phenomenal team. La Salle has put lacrosse far beyond Philadelphia. It’s always one of the best teams in the state.”

Gregg paused.

“It doesn’t get any more special than this,” he said.

Smiling broadly, Gregg looked like a proud father while discussing how the Hawks had engineered a low-scoring game in their favor. After building a 7-4 lead, the Prep faced a relentless attempt by the increasingly desperate Explorers during the hectic final minutes.

La Salle, a three-time state champion which finished the season 15-6, crept to within 7-6 on goals by senior Zack Jones and sophomore star Matt Rambo, the latter punctuating a hat trick. But Fleming extinguished any remaining doubt when he scored an open net goal with 11 seconds remaining in regulation.

“I was just trying to clear it away,” an exuberant Fleming said. “It was great seeing it go in.”

Before the game, most Prep players swore to anyone who would listen that they believed their time had finally arrived. Despite losing to La Salle, 11-10, earlier in the year, they surmised that their impressive regular season and dominating playoff semifinal performance were more than sufficient to label them a potential champion.

But standing in their way was La Salle, which entered the final with seven consecutive Catholic League crowns (all of them at the expense of the Prep) and 16 of the past 18 since the Catholic League added lacrosse to its already vast network of extracurricular activities.

“We knew all along that if we were going to win the Catholic League, we would have to do it against La Salle,” said senior Brad James, who joined teammate senior Jeff Heath with two goals (the other Prep goal was scored by sophomore Anthony Marini). “It was going to go down to the very end. Everyone knew that.”

Senior Jake O’Brien concurred.

“After losing to La Salle every season since my freshman year in the championship game, it felt so satisfying to finally beat them as a senior,” he said. “The whole team worked so hard in the offseason, and it is a great feeling to see that hard work pay off.”

As the Standard went to press this week, the Hawks were still alive in their pursuit of a state championship. Behind four goals by Heath, the Prep expunged an 8-5 deficit at halftime to defeat Manheim Township in overtime, 11-10, in a Saturday quarterfinal contest.

O’Brien wants the state title, but….

“No matter what happens, this has been a season that none of us will ever want to forget,” he said.

John Knebels can be reached at