EXETER TWP. >> After twenty-some games and months of preparation, Pennsylvania’s elite have arrived at the business end of the lacrosse season. In the chase for a state title, it’s time for big-time players to shine.
Few have bigger reputations than Strath Haven’s Jeff Conner. And did he ever take to the spotlight Tuesday.
Conner compiled a 10-point day as the Panthers, District 1’s third seed, trounced District 3 champion Palmyra, 15-9, in the first round of the PIAA Class 2A tourney at Exeter Township High School.
The final score belies the distance between the teams throughout. Haven (15-7) entered halftime with a commanding 11-3 lead. Conner trudged to the locker room with four goals and three assists to his name on the way to five and five.
Not bad for the midfielder and recent University of Virginia commit who admits he’s rounding back into form after a sprained ankle that was heavily taped Tuesday has slowed him in the last week.
“We had to come out, and I know that if I don’t produce, sometimes we struggle,” Conner said. “This game was mostly just getting our confidence back and pushing forward.”
Huestis from Conner. 6-1 Haven. 22-1 Palmyra dazed early. pic.twitter.com/ovx6aWBxhM
— Matthew De George (@sportsdoctormd) May 31, 2017
Conner may be the straw the stirs the Panthers drink, but he’s no one-man band. A beneficiary of several pinpoint Conner feeds, Will Huestis buried four goals. Tyler Fink added a hat trick and Liam Carney paired two goals with two helpers.
“I just know if I beat my man, they’re going to be open,” Conner said. “They’re some of the best finishers in the Central League. I have confidence in every single one of them to score goals.”
“Jeff’s our guy. Everybody knows it,” defender Ryan Morris said. “He took it to heart tonight and realized it’s a state playoff game and he’s got to lead us where we’re going to go.”
The final score doesn’t flatter the Haven defense, but it did enough, especially early against a nervous Palmyra side in the program’s first states appearance.
The combination of Hunter Mazur’s dominance at the X (18-for-21, including the first nine of the game) deprived the Cougars (22-2) of possession. When they got the ball, they squandered them through a dozen first-half turnovers and rushed second-half shots that played into the defense’s hands.
Vincey Palermo made four first-half saves, while Will Brake manned the second stanza with nine stops. While Palmyra recovered to outshot Haven, 28-10, in the second half, many were practice-speed efforts funneled in from distant areas.
“We were making mistakes we don’t usually make,” Palmyra’s Pete Robertson said. “That’s not what we usually do. We were having a tough time winning faceoffs, our wing play wasn’t as good as usual. When they control the ball three-fourths of the first quarter, it’s going to be hard to put points on the board.”
“We trust any goalie that’s in the cage,” Morris said. “Our motto is just get in their hands, for them to shoot it high or wide, or have Will make the save and get it up and out.”
Robertson tallied a hat trick to go with an assist, and Grant Haus fired home two goals. But the District 3 champs didn’t take to the states limelight as they would’ve hoped.
Conner, though, had no such problems, his 10-point evening outstanding by most standards but merely above-average in a season where the junior has collected 129 points. He scored consecutive unassisted tallies late in the first half to balloon the margin to 10-3 when the Cougars underestimated his threat behind the cage. His primary defender, University of Delaware-bound sophomore Tate Wasson, struggled to keep up. Five flags, three of which the Panthers cashed in on, didn’t help either.
That sets up a shot at revenge Saturday against West Chester Henderson, which ousted the Panthers in the District 1 semifinals. While adhering to the one-game-at-a-time mantra, the Panthers would admit that the awaiting Warriors add some glee to Tuesday’s result.
“Most definitely,” Conner said. “We want to go back and get them back and get the W, and then proceed to a state title.”