WEST CHESTER -- The Conestoga team that took the field Tuesday afternoon in the PIAA boys lacrosse semifinals didn’t look much like the one that captured the state crown last season. Nor did it resemble the two PIAA champions before that. After all, a lot can change in a year.
But some things never do. Even with five All-Americans and plenty of other starters no longer with them, these Pioneers do a pretty good imitation of their star-studded predecessors. After a vintage performance, Conestoga is Hershey-bound again.
Sam Friedman netted a hat trick and the Pioneers scored the final nine goals in a 13-4 dismantling of District 1 champion Avon Grove at West Chester Henderson, surging into Saturday’s championship game at Hersheypark Stadium. Conestoga will go for its fourth straight state title against District 12 champion La Salle, which the Pioneers have faced in four of the PIAA’s first five finals.
Nine different players dented the scoreboard in a dominant all-around display that brought back shades of the Pioneers’ most recent class, which went 96-8 and reached the state title game all four years. Though this particular group has lost more games than the last four combined, its struggles were just a part of the journey that, once again, has reached the same destination.
“The last three teams we’ve had have been All-Americans, All-American attackmen...This year, we don’t really have any superstars, and that’s what makes us a special team,” said goalie Rob Zonino, who made 10 saves. “We’ve been through some things that I’ve personally never been through, having a rough beginning to the season because we were so young. As much as people doubted us after those games, they’ve made us a lot stronger. We’re here, and we’re not going to give up. We all want to win it together.”
For much of Conestoga’s season, Hershey seemed as unlikely a final destination as Timbuktu. The Pioneers hovered around .500 throughout, suffering routs at the hands of Radnor, La Salle, and a pair of Maryland powerhouses. Still, a district title was there for the taking...until the Red Devils snatched it from them with a 6-5 victory in the semifinals, handing the Pioneers their first loss in that tournament. Since then, Conestoga (15-10) had been desperate for a rematch. When the Pioneers got it, revenge made another trip to Chocolate Town all the sweeter.
After Avon Grove’s Beau Kush scored 43 seconds into the second half to tie the game at 4, Conestoga found another gear. Tim Langerhans’ top-shelf snipe midway through the third started a jaw-dropping run that left the red-hot Red Devils wondering what hit them.
“We were really upset after the last game,” said junior attackman Jake Scott, who scored two goals. “We knew we could have easily won that, and that was our district title that they took from us...Luckily, we had another shot at them. Avon Grove is a great team, but we just really wanted to win and came out that way today.
“The last couple of years we’ve had a bunch of All-Americans, and this year we don’t, so we’re focused on playing together as a team. If we play like that, no one can stop us.”
Not even Avon Grove (21-4), which had won nine straight and hadn’t surrendered more than seven goals since a 13-12 loss to Great Valley back on April 16. But the Pioneers had a chip on their shoulder, and their vengeance was something to behold. After Langerhans gave Conestoga the lead for good, Friedman and Steven Hildebrand scored in quick succession to stretch it to 7-4 before Connor Ashton finished a feed from Alex Mezey with 15 seconds left in the period. Zach Schleicher fired home a top-shelf rocket early in the fourth, and Scott’s running goal 22 seconds later stretched the advantage to 10-4 with 9:21 remaining.
When Atkinson and Scott scored eight seconds apart just a minute and a half later, it was all over but the shouting. All of a sudden, a game that seemed destined to go down to the wire became a full-fledged rout as the Pioneers’ deluge overwhelmed Avon Grove’s normally stout defense. Everyone got in on the act, with Atkinson scoring two goals, Zach Schleicher adding a goal and three assists, and Mezey and Ashton producing a goal and two helpers apiece.
“We’ve really been gelling as a team throughout the season,” Friedman said. “Some of our losses have made us come together a little bit more on offense and really made us focus.”
If that didn’t totally account for the Pioneers’ laser focus, a 3-1 deficit couldn’t have hurt. When Kush (two goals) caught Conestoga napping on a substitution, sprinting in unmolested from midfield and finishing a nice pass, Avon Grove was rolling along with a two-goal lead early in the second quarter. But the Pioneers bore down after that, holding the Red Devils to just one goal over the last 33 minutes.
“I’m really happy for our guys,” Conestoga coach Brian Samson said. “We had a great game today after a slow start, and for three quarters we really played our best. They picked the right time to do it.
“In the second half we started controlling ground balls and giving our offense more chances...We just played great, and Zonino played so well early that we were able to stay in there, because they put a lot of pressure on us. It was a game of runs, and we got a nice one.”
For Avon Grove, it was but a disappointing ending to a remarkable story. In their self-titled ‘Season of Firsts,’ the Red Devils accomplished the first Ches-Mont title, district crown, state berth, and state wins in program history. And with just four seniors set to graduate, the future is brighter than ever.
“It’s been a great season,” said coach Eric Jackson, the only coach in the program’s 13 years. “It’s been something we’ve been building towards for years. We’ve always said it’s a season of firsts, and that makes for good press and a good story, but the bottom line is we’ve slowly gotten here. We’ve been to the playoffs before, we’ve been in the Ches-Mont title hunt for the last three or four years. Back when they took seven teams to states, we’ve placed eighth...when they took five teams, we’d place sixth. We’ve been slowly getting here, and I think we have the pieces in place to stay. We want this to become more of an expectation.”
“It’s definitely good experience for our young guys to get a feel for what it’s like at this stage...Next year’s season starts tomorrow. Guys have to keep working hard and remember this feeling.”
For Conestoga, which has now made the state title game every year since the PIAA playoffs debuted in 2009, the feeling never gets old. In truth, though, it’s a new one for many of the Pioneers, most of whom either weren’t on the previous title-winning squads or rarely saw the field if they were. Another new feeling? Being the underdog in a state final. Yet that’s what Conestoga will be against the high-powered Explorers (22-2), who have won 20 straight games and entered the 16-team field as heavy favorites to hoist the trophy in Hershey. That’s just fine with this new edition of the Pioneers’ dynasty.
“We love that people doubt us,” Zonino said. “We love being underrated. And we love that no one is going to pick us to win that game.”
“We’ll take whatever role they want to assign to us,” Samson added. “We’ll go in as underdogs and hopefully play like we did today. I told our guys, ‘don’t be happy just to be there.’ We’re going up there to win a game.”
With a performance like this one, don’t count them out.
Conestoga 13, Avon Grove 4
Conestoga 1 3 4 5 -- 13
Avon Grove 2 1 1 0 -- 4
Conestoga goals: Friedman 3, Atkinson 2, J. Scott 2, Mezey, Langerhans, Hildebrand, Ashton, Z. Schleicher, Bassett.
Avon Grove goals: Kush 2, King, Cyron.
Goalie saves: Zonino (C) 10; Schreiner (AG) 4.