LOWER PROVIDENCE >> It was, admittedly, a tough first-round assignment in the PIAA Class 3A playoffs for the newly crowned District 1 champions. But the Conestoga boys lacrosse squad understands that the quest for a state title is going to be filled with difficult challenges.
Drawing a league rival in a one-and-done situation is never ideal, and the Pioneers got off to a less than stellar start Tuesday. But ’Stoga weathered it all for a hard-fought 9-5 decision over an upset-minded Haverford team making its first state tournament appearance.
“That was a tough matchup for us in the first round, to tell you the truth,” Conestoga coach Brody Bush said. “But when there are so few teams left, nothing is going to be easy because everybody is good.”
With the win in the all-Central League affair at Methacton High School, the Pioneers (20-3) advance to Saturday’s state quarterfinals to face Manheim Township. The second-seeded squad from District 3 topped District 7 champion Peters Township, 13-5. Conestoga is now three wins away from winning the program’s first state championship since 2012.
“It was actually kind of weird playing a Central League team in states,” senior attack Henry Berg said. “Haverford is a good team. We certainly didn’t underestimate them.”
The Fords’ season ends at 17-8, and first-year coach Greg Decina had mixed emotions.
“We didn’t sell ourselves short,” he said. “We didn’t come here just to make states, but we came to win it. We are upset, but this is a good learning experience.
“Our kids have battled every minute of every single game, so I am incredibly proud of them.”
The sixth-seed from District 1, Haverford jumped out to an early lead. And even though ’Stoga certainly didn’t panic, it was a bit of a wakeup call.
“We were excited, but we eventually settled down,” Bush said. “That might be a little youth on our part.”
Down 2-0 just over five minutes into the contest, the Pioneers proceeded to score seven of the next eight goals to open a four-goal lead at the intermission. Berg notched three of the goals for Conestoga, and two of his tallies prompted Haverford to call a timeout.
“Henry is so quick that it’s really hard for defensemen to stay with him,” Bush pointed out. “And if you have slides that are late to him, he can really hurt you with shots right or left.”
The Fords, however, managed to stay within striking distance when midfielder Nick DiIorio registered the only goal of the third period. It remained 7-4 until ’Stoga’s Tommy Sopko ended a long scoring drought with 5:04 remaining.
Haverford’s Cole Lukasiewicz made it 8-5 soon thereafter, but Sean Bailey responded just 27 seconds later for the Pioneers, who then ran out the clock from there.
“Haverford is very well coached and they have a bunch of gritty players,” Bush said. “We knew that heading in and we were prepared.
“Holding a team like that to five goals is impressive. We played some great team defense.”
The Fords wanted to force a more controlled tempo, especially compared to the high-scoring, wide-open regular season meeting back on April 20. Conestoga won it 14-12.
“We didn’t think we just hung with them the first time,” Decina pointed out. “We probably should have won that one.
“Our defense buckled down and we slowed this game down a little. It was just more of a settled game than last time.”
“This time it was more defensive,” Bush added. “We didn’t score in the third quarter because they had the ball for most of it. But we countered pretty well in the fourth.”