RADNOR >> For four years, Anna Murphy has heard it.
All the Catholic League championship wheels in the world weren’t going to change it. No amount of goals piled on to overwhelmed division foes would assuage the perception. Until proven otherwise, Archbishop Carroll’s success was great … you know, for the Catholic League.
“Catholic League, we win every year so people see it as, ‘Oh, it’s just Carroll. They’re nothing important,’” Murphy was saying Thursday. “But that’s not it at all. We’re good and we’re in the championship.”
There’s no arguing the former point because of the veracity of the latter: Carroll, so long dominating its discreet realm, has evolved into a state power this season, which it intends to prove in Saturday’s PIAA Class 3A final against Springfield (noon, W.C. East).
The lines that divide the crowded corridors of scholastic power in Southeastern PA are often arbitrary tribal barriers. Often, they’re artifice created for the sake of discussion, to categorize accomplishment and carve up a hectic and competitive space into manageable pieces. They stoke competition — public, private, Inter-Ac, and on and on.
But the significance of this achievement in Archbishop Carroll’s recent history is too large to overlook. Seventeen straight years, longer than some of coach Lorraine Beers’ players have been alive, Carroll has unfailingly ruled the Catholic League. Many seasons have featured finales as lopsided as this year’s 20-3 pasting of Cardinal O’Hara. It’s been years since Carroll’s hegemony in its league was in doubt.
But the state tournament was another matter. In eight previous trips to the PIAA tournament in the (far superior) one-class format dating to the PIAA’s sanctioning of the sport in 2008-09, Carroll had won a grand total of three games. All eight of their ousters came via District 1 opposition in the nominally “western” half of the bracket (read: District 3 and 7 cannon fodder). Five times they stumbled at the first hurdle against teams that landed fifth or sixth in District 1’s postseason crucible.
Four of their vanquishers became state champions. Seven of the eight qualified for state finals. And to concentrate the supremacy even further, consider that of the 16 teams to play for a PIAA girls lacrosse title from 2009-16, 15 hailed from the Central League (Downingtown East’s 2011 team was the lone interloper). Carroll this year breaks the string.
In short, no matter how many goals Carroll plastered on league opposition, they still fell distinctly middle of the road when pitted against the gold standard of high school lacrosse, in PA (and among public schools, in the nation).
For a talented senior class, that proximity to greatness has served as a potent fuel.
“Ever since freshman year, I’ve always wanted to get to the state championship, because we’ve seen other teams do it, and we want to experience that because we’re good enough,” Murphy said. “Being my senior year, we’ve worked so hard this year, going hard every practice, working on new things to get better. Now that we’ve gotten here, it shows our hard work has paid off.”
That work has paid plenty of dividends. Carroll (23-1) is unbeaten against PIAA opposition, the only blemish coming May 11 to Agnes Irwin, which sent it toward the postseason with what has become a welcomed dose of perspective.
“I think playing Agnes Irwin and getting that loss, they’re a really good team, so getting that loss helped us,” senior defender Rachel Matey said. “We’re not the best. We can’t get too cocky. We’re playing all these good teams with commits to North Carolina and all that, so we just have to keep our heads up and play our game.”
In the regular season, the Patriots bested Radnor, Garnet Valley and Conestoga, last year’s PIAA eliminator and the presumptive favorite for a state title this year, adding particular relish to that triumph. They also got the better of Springfield, 10-9, last month. In the postseason, the Patriots have mown through District 1 foes aplenty: Strath Haven, Owen J. Roberts and four-time PIAA champion Garnet Valley, 13-11, in the semis.
Carroll’s evolution has been a multi-year process that includes the development of All-Americans like Sam Swart and Katie Detwiler. Such top talent has sporadically cropped up in Beers’ rosters down the years, but this season’s group has clearly differentiated itself, in part via the nonleague gauntlet that Beers has laid before them.
Each cites a different factor as contributing to the boom year. Murphy stresses the friendships in the squad, headed by a crop of seniors with many years’ experience playing together. Matey sees the transformation first-hand — as a converted midfielder who has marshaled the defense, Matey has grown from a middle-schooler deciding whether soccer or lacrosse would be her primary sport to a senior committed to a quality athletic and academic program in James Madison. She also appreciates the knock-on effect this voyage to the state final can have for younger classes in her former position.
But perhaps more than anything, this group has been galvanized by the us-against-the-District-1-world mentality, a fiery mindset broadcasting that the Patriots are to be overlooked only at your peril.
“We’re definitely trying to break through that because we want people to see us as real competition, and that’s what we are,” Murphy said. “This is really going to prove it to everyone.”
To contact Matthew De George, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sportsdoctormd.