WEST CHESTER – In a cross-county lacrosse showdown that more than lived up to the hype, third-seeded Conestoga rode a fast start and a gutsy finish to edge top-seeded Avon Grove, 14-12, to capture the program’s fourth District 1 boys’ championship since 2009.
“I am proud of our guys. They were very resilient,” said ’Stoga head coach Brody Bush.
“You have to go through a lot of great teams to win this district, so we are going to enjoy this,” added senior Tommy Sopko.
The Pioneers (19-3 overall) never trailed on Thursday at West Chester Henderson, but ’Stoga had to fend off several serious runs by the Red Devils, who were making their fourth district title game appearance in five years. Both teams now advance to the upcoming PIAA Class 3A Tournament, and don’t be surprised if they wind up playing again.
“That was a great game between two very good teams,” said Avon Grove head coach Eric Jackson.
The Central League co-champs held on down the stretch against the Ches-Mont champions thanks to some outstanding work by goalie Scott MacMillan, as well as a little luck. Trailing 12-11 with just over five minutes left in regulation, the Devils’ Doug Jones had the equalizer on his stick but his shot bounced off the near post. It was one of four times on Thursday that Avon Grove had shots glance off the cage.
“The ball definitely rolled our way a couple times,” admitted MacMillan, who stopped six shots in the second half alone.
With time running down, the Pioneers got a pair of insurance goals from Nicholas Cost and Henry Berg just 34 seconds apart. Zach Augustine pulled the Devils back to within two with a goal at the 2:46 mark, but the ’Stoga defense stiffened, and MacMillan’s last save came with about 10 seconds on the clock.
“Our defense played great, especially in the fourth quarter,” Bush said.
Now 19-2 overall, the Devils’ 17-game winning streak came to an end. Avon Grove was so distraught, the team did not accept the runner-up medals.
“This is a tough one to swallow for our guys,” Jackson said. “We fought hard to come back from a (four goal) deficit. That shows our guys have heart.”
En route to capturing its first district crown since 2012, Conestoga had the edge in goal and a slight one in the face-off circle. Junior James Reilly went head-to-head with the Devils’ Nate Hammond, and wound up with a slim 15-14 advantage. But in the first half, it was 11-7.
“James (Reilly) and our wing guys gave us a lot of opportunities,” Bush said. “And Scott (MacMillan) had some huge saves in there. Both James and Scott have been fantastic this year for us.”
Avon Grove was down 10-7 at the break, but stormed back to knot the score at 10-all with early second half goals by Joey Borcky, Nick Chastain and Jones. The Devils dominated play for most of the third quarter, but MacMillan kept the Pioneers in it with four consecutive saves.
Nick Braendel and Sean Bailey wound up scoring in the final two minutes of the quarter reestablish the ’Stoga lead to two. Brendan Harman scored for the fourth time early in the final period, to set up the finish.
“Last year Avon Grove beat us twice, and I think a lot of the returning guys remembered that,” Bush said.
“They are definitely internally driven. They were ready to play. Tuesday’s win (in the semis over Central League rival Garnet Valley) was an emotional game for us, but I could tell before the game they were focused.”
That may be why the Pioneers scored early and often at the start of the first and second quarters. ’Stoga raced out to a 3-0 lead just five minutes into the action, but the Devils called a timeout and notched a pair almost immediately.
In front by one heading into the second, Conestoga did it again, pouring in a trio of goals in the opening 2:39 to extend the margin to four. Avon Grove bounced back once again but was unable sustain it. The Pioneers ended up taking a three-goal lead into the break thanks to two late goals by Sopko, including one in the final five seconds.
“(Avon Grove) went on a couple runs but we didn’t get too nervous,” said Sopko, who finished with three goals and an assist. “We just locked down, played good defense, put everything on the line for ground balls and blocking shots. And then when we got into our offense, we wanted to be smart, but push it and try to score.”
Leading up to the action, the Red Devils were certainly the more vocal squad, especially compared to the quietly confident Pioneers.
“I think we came out a little bit too amped-up,” Jackson acknowledged.
“I definitely noticed that,” MacMillan argeed. “But that’s kind of how we’ve been rolling all year. We are more business-like. We just play our game rather than worry about our opponent.”
Braendel wound up with three goals, while Berg and Cost added two goals apiece for Conestoga. Borcky had two goals and three assists, Jones scored a pair, and Jake Smith had a goal and two assists for Avon Grove.
Afterwards, both teams were hinting that nothing but a deep run in the state tournament would be remotely acceptable.
“We say that this is a marathon. We are heading into the last third of the marathon, and we have four more games to get there,” Bush said.
“Games in the districts can be as difficult, or more difficult, than in states,” Reilly added. “This will help to prepare us. We’ve played 10-goal games, one-goal games, two-goal games in the districts. We’ve been through it all, really.”
Jackson said: “We are just happy we get to practice tomorrow. We have to work hard so we get a chance to end the season with a win. That’s been our goal all along.”
Conestoga 14, Avon Grove 12
Conestoga 4 6 2 2 — 14
Avon Grove 3 4 3 2 — 12
Conestoga goals: Berg 2, Cost 2, Bailey, Braendel 3, Sopko 3, Madden, Kienzle, Hjelm.
Avon Grove goals: Augustine, Harman 4, Chastain, Jones 2, Borcky 2, Whiteside, Smith.
Goalie saves: MacMillan (C) 9; Malone (AG) 4; Spencer (AG) 2.