BENSALEM >> After two years of seeing their season end in the Philadelphia Catholic League semifinals, La Salle got over the hump.
However, the Explorers needed 30 extra minutes and then a penalty kick shootout to finally do it. A yeoman’s effort on both sides lifted La Salle over Archbishop Wood 3-0 in the penalty shootout after playing to a 1-1 draw Wednesday night at the United German Hungarians Club.
The teams met early in the PCL season, with La Salle taking a 1-0 win. Wood came in a very different team than the one that was on that field back in September. The Vikings closed the season on a tear and were dominant in their quarterfinal win over Archbishop Ryan.
“The first time we played them and the last month of the season, they haven’t given up much,” La Salle coach Tom McCaffrey said. “I thought in that 4-5-6 area in the table they were the team that was going to be the toughest out with how stingy they’ve been.”
Tempo dominated the first half with both sides trading runs and build-ups, switching the ball and connecting passes. Wood’s RJ Liszewski had the first shot of the game five minutes in but it didn’t trouble Brett Werner.
Werner, a big and aggressive junior, was good off his line in the first half and snared a few balls out of the air with Wood players buzzing around.
La Salle was able to stem every threat in the first half defensively and looked to settle in offensively.
“They came out with a rejuvenated passion for what they were doing and they grinded on us and made it really, really difficult to do anything,” McCaffrey said. “We just tried to keep creating chances. This time of year, it’s all about cashing in on clear-cut chances when you have them.”
Winger Spencer Patton was very active, as usual, and drew a lot of attention from Wood. Zach Hogan, JP Pluck, Mike D’Angelo and right back Joe Brigidi provided some good moments going forward as well.
The Explorers had a couple good but not great free kicks in the opening 20 minutes so when they got one about 45 yards out in the 23rd minute, they changed it up. Patton came up to take it and delivered a good service into the box.
The ball hit off a Wood player into the air where James Hughes rose up to meet it. Hughes knocked it in with 17:14 left in the first half.
La Salle pressed for a second, but Wood’s defense and keeper Joe Cimino held firm. After taking it from the Explorers, the Vikings started to take the game over in the second half.
“We knew we didn’t want to go to a shootout so we threw more people forward and we played to win and didn’t play not to lose the last 20 minutes,” Liszewski said. “We tried to take it to them.”
Hughes left the game with about 27 minutes left with a cut on his left ear bleeding. Once the defender went out, Wood seized momentum and really started to pressure the Explorers.
With the Vikings hammering away, a goal felt inevitable and it finally came with 17:23 left. Liszewski flicked a ball to Cody Taylor on the left side of the 18 and Taylor did the rest, getting Werner off his line and slotting home.
“That gave us a lot of momentum going through the game,” Liszewski said. “It showed us we could play with them and up until that point it was just ‘OK, we can stick with them.’ We saw we could take it to them and had a chance to take this game.”
Hughes came back after the goal and helped solidify the defense.
La Salle had a prime chance to regain control when D’Angelo had a free kick on the right flank. He hit a great ball that Cimino made a tremendous diving save on. Cimino was stellar all night, making seven stops and fearlessly going up to punch away balls against La Salle’s bigger players.
“He came off the line, he boxed a couple and we struggled a little bit matching up with them in the height department,” Wood coach Hugh Kelly said. “He came up big a couple times and saves us. But their goalie made some nice saves too.”
The second overtime saw a wild sequence starting with a La Salle corner that had not one but two headers cleared off the line by Wood defenders. That second clear started a counter with Taylor shooting at a wide open net only for a La Salle player to get a boot on and clear it.
A follow-up was saved by Werner and the chaos settled.
La Salle shot first in the shootout, with Patton gamely stepping up through cramping to take the first. Cimino made a really good save on it, but Werner had his teammate’s back.
The towering Explorer faced down Liszewski and got the stop to keep it level after a round.
“He’s insane and being 6-foot-4 helps in PKs,” McCaffrey said. “He was athletic all night, taking balls out of the box, quick off his line, jumping over kids to win aerial balls. He did everything we needed him to do.”
La Salle scored its next three PKs, the last by David Steinbach providing the winner after Wood missed then stung the crossbar.
Wood’s season is not over and the Vikings will play for the District 12 AAA title next Thursday. Liszewski said while they played well Wednesday, the result gives him motivation to press harder in regulation and not have to face a shootout again.
La Salle will play for the PCL title Saturday evening in South Philly. After gutting out a semifinal win, it’s determined to finish things out.
“Our seniors didn’t want to go home tonight,” McCaffrey said. “They had a job to do and they wanted to get it done to have a look and a taste of what a championship game is like. They just dug deep. When you looked at each of them coming off even as they were dead tired and dragging, they came off the field saying was time to dig, go further and play for that next 80 minutes of a title game.”
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