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Henderson’s X marks spot Springfield has to avoid

SPRINGFIELD >> Connect the dots between the four PIAA boys lacrosse finalists at West Chester East Saturday afternoon, and you’ll find a glaring similarity bonding three of them: Standout faceoff men.

Springfield is the outlier. And yet it hasn’t stopped the Cougars from lifting two District 1 championships in three years and winning last year’s PIAA title, against a La Salle squad boasting All-American FOGO Anthony Giuliani.

Against any other team, the faceoff prowess of West Chester Henderson’s Luke Wierman, the Fairfield-bound sophomore who has cut a swath of destruction through the opposition this postseason, would seem a gamechanger. For evidence, refer to the Warriors’ 20-3 record.

But Springfield has displayed a certain immunity to struggles without the ball. That battle, waged well beyond the X, could define the PIAA Class 2A final at 2 p.m.

The crucial difference in Springfield’s mentality may be what happens after the faceoff. While some teams may slump after conceding possession, Springfield (21-3) seems to swell. Its bread-and-butter is smothering defense that frustrates and induces turnovers, and the path to allowing that defense to spur offense is, well, to not have the ball.

“I just think everyone on the field is always ready to play defense,” All-American defender Pat Clemens said. “If they get the ball, we know we can play six-on-six defense and maybe get the ball back. We’re not really worrying about getting the ball necessarily. It’s more about defending the ball.”

The comfort without possession is vital, especially given what has transpired at the faceoff position this season. Faceoff man Andrew Pickett went down with a season-ending knee injury in late April, causing an on-the-fly change in tack. Springfield has groomed sophomore midfielder Zach Broomall to take draws, while classmate Jack Spence has experience at the X as well. Then there’s the pole option, with Clemens pulled in from the wing he usually patrols.

Even with Pickett, whose percentage landed in the bottom half of the Central League, Springfield didn’t possess a menace on draws. So the Cougars have adapted, and the strength of the team is split between dogged wings Clemens and defensive middie Matt Ries, who are tremendous in scooping up ground balls and a team defensive approach that specializes in causing turnovers.

Essentially, the Cougars have hit on the right way to lose faceoffs: Conceding possession but deterring fastbreaks and giving the defense a chance to cause turnovers.

“We don’t want to give fast breaks,” Spence said. “We always have our wings shutting off just in case they do. We just take a right step. (All-Delco and assistant coach Greg) Gurenlian and Pickett always preach that, so it’s what we try to do.”

The defensive proof is in the pudding. Springfield has allowed just five goals per game this year. It muzzled Henderson in a 4-3 triumph in the District 1 Class 2A final victory. Since allowing 24 goals in the first two games of the season, Springfield has allowed nine or fewer in each of the last 22 outings.

That stinginess reached its statistical apex with Tuesday’s 12-0 blanking of Lansdale Catholic in the semifinal, the first shutout in nine years of PIAA boys lacrosse tournaments. Yet to ask a defense that comprises a pair of All-Americans in Clemens and goalie James Spence, even that Lansdale effort isn’t the epitome of what they’re capable of.

“Defensively, I don’t think we’ve played our best game,” senior pole Anthony DiVario said. “I think James bailed us out a lot, saved us. I think our coaches are preparing us extremely well for this game.”

Last year’s final against a high-powered La Salle side was surprisingly low-octane. This year’s carries greater expectation of a closer-to-the-vest affair given Henderson’s defensive strengths. Though Henderson bludgeoned Mars, 20-9, in the semis, it is stingy, too. Only once this season have the Warriors allowed double-figure goal totals, that coming in the season-opener to Strath Haven, a team that the Warriors ousted in the District 1 semis and PIAA quarters. Goalie Kyle Dampman was a first-team All-Ches-Mont selection, as was senior Jon Earley.

That unit will still have a tough time shackling Springfield’s attack, led by Kyle Long and his 105 assists. Mike Tulskie stands at 64 goals after four in the semis, and a passel of other shooters and dodgers make muzzling the Cougars a daunting task.

“You’ve just got to come out to play,” attackman Joey DeBernardi said. “They’re obviously a very good team and it was a close game, so really we just want it so bad, I can’t see us coming out slow. We’ve got 16 seniors. I don’t think there’s anything we’re going to do. We’re going to come out ready to go.”

Last year’s experience in the state final offers value to the Cougars. Few teams have been quite so battle-tested, playing their fourth tournament final in three seasons. And if the results of the past are any indication, Saturday could be another special day for Springfield.

“I think that coming into this game, we know what’s going to happen,” Clemens said. “It’s going to be an exciting game and I think we’re going to be able to handle all the pressures that are around us.”

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