SHILLINGTON – With three state titles since 2009, the Conestoga boys are undoubtedly a state lacrosse powerhouse. But nobody on the current roster had ever advanced to the PIAA semifinals … until Saturday.
The reigning District 1 champs rode a terrific start in each half and went on to overwhelm Manheim Township, 12-6, in Class 3A quarterfinal action at Governor Mifflin High School. The Pioneers (21-3 overall) are now just two wins away from another state crown, and will take on Mount Lebanon on Tuesday in the semis at the time and location to be announced.
“This the first time since I’ve been at Conestoga that we’ve gotten this far. It feels awesome because we have at least two more days together as a team,” said senior attacker Tommy Sopko.
“It’s new for these kids,” added ’Stoga head coach Brody Bush. “Even though Conestoga has a storied past, this group of kids haven’t experienced it yet. But they are gritty and tough. Very tough.”
The Pioneers never took District 3 runner-up Manheim Township (19-4 overall) lightly. It helped when earlier in the day, Central Buck East knocked off highly regarded La Salle in other quarterfinal action.
“Sometimes it’s a different challenge to go against fresh faces,” Bush pointed out. “Manheim Township is a very good team. And with all of the scores in this round, it kind of hit home that anybody can win at this point.
“Our boys knew that La Salle lost and our seniors made sure that we didn’t take this game lightly.”
The play of face off specialist James Reilly was crucial in the fast start, and the junior ended up winning 15 of 22.
“We were dominate at the face off ‘X,’” Bush said.
“Handling possession and keeping our momentum going is really important,” added Reilly, who also scored a goal. “When you score and get the ball right back right away, the offense is still in a groove.”
The Pioneers scored twice in the opening three minutes and led 4-0 after one period. But soon after making it 5-0 early in the second quarter, ’Stoga’s offense bogged down until the second half.
It all changed in a hurry after the intermission as Conestoga poured in three goals in the first 1:16 to widen the margin to 9-3.
“When we are winning face offs, playing fast and smart, and when we have good shooting luck, we are going to stick a bunch,” said Sopko, who led all scorers with four goals.
“We have really good two-way middies. Any player on this team, if they pick up the ball, I know they can score.”
The Blue Streaks regrouped and scored two goals in a 24-second span pull within four, but Sopko scored on an individual move from behind the cage, and then Kent Hjelm made it 11-5 in the final minute of the third quarter.
“This kind of feels like when this program was really good in 2009-2012. I think we have a chance to be as good as those teams,” said senior Henry Berg.
“We lost in the quarters my freshman year,” added Reilly. “So this is an awesome opportunity. We feel like we have a team this year that is capable of winning it all.”
In the first half alone, the Pioneers peppered Manheim Township keeper Caton Johnson with 16 shots on goal and only faced three in return. Three of Conestoga’s first eight goals came after the defense forced turnovers deep in Manheim Township territory.
“It was nice not knowing much about (Manheim Township). I think we overthought Haverford in round one of states,” Sopko said.
“Playing out of league, and especially out of district teams, is nice because we can really play our game,” Reilly agreed. “We don’t have to hide anything. That benefits us because we are so deep and we have so many threats.”
Berg scored a goal and chipped in with four assists, Nick Brandel score two times, and Tate Kienzle added a goal and an assist for ’Stoga.
“I want to spend as much time as possible with this group,” Bush said. “We will have our banquet (Sunday), we will practice Monday and the next game is Tuesday.”
Mount Lebanon, the second-place team from District 7, topped State College to reach the final four.
“If they’ve gotten this far, so they will be a big challenge for us,” Bush said.
“Just like (Manheim Township), we don’t know anything about (Mount Lebonon) either,” Sopko added. “We will just play our game and worry about ourselves.”
Conestoga 12, Manheim Township 6
Manheim Township 0 2 3 1 — 6
Conestoga 4 1 6 1 — 12
Manheim Township goals: Hutchinson 2, Sallade 2, Freeman, Diamond.
Conestoga goals: Sopko 4, Braendel 2, Berg, Cost, Hjelm, Kienzle, Reilly, Gregory.
Goalie saves: Johnson (MT) 14; MacMillan (C) 6.