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Mittman’s moment sends La Salle to PCL title repeat

La Salle's boys soccer team with the Philadelphia Catholic League trophy after topping Roman Catholic 1-0 in the final om Monday, Oct. 30, 2017. (Andrew Robinson/Digital First Media)

PHILADELPHIA >> It was Jacob Mittman’s moment.

His impact in the Philadelphia Catholic League playoffs to that point limited by a hip injury, Mittman grinded his way through the pain Monday night. So, when in the symphonic chaos that can only exist in an 18-yard box following a free kick, Mittman had his chance to make a mark on the playoffs.

Make a mark he did. The senior’s goal with 9:29 left provided the only score as La Salle topped Roman Catholic 1-0 Monday night at Northeast High, vaulting the Explorers to their second straight PCL title.

“It was pretty hectic,” Mittman said. “I got into the six, I saw the ball get laid off by Dave (Steinbach) and I kicked it in. A lot of things were going on at the time, and luckily it went into the net.”

The last three years, the La Salle boys soccer team knew it had a weapon roaming the halls it couldn’t use.

The guys on the team all knew Mittman was a great soccer player, but with Mittman playing for Continental FC’s academy team, he wasn’t able to play high school soccer. This year, with the Explorers trying to replace the hit their attack took with Spencer Patton’s graduation, they got some good news.

Mittman was going to play for La Salle.

“We were psyched,” Explorers senior co-captain Joseph Brigidi said. “Losing a guy like Spencer and grabbing up Jake Mittman, it was very comforting.”

Mittman picked up the injury when he was hit square in the right hip by a hard-hit kick playing against North Penn on Oct. 14. The senior, who was a first-team All-PCL pick, played only limited minutes in the team’s quarterfinal win over Cardinal O’Hara and never saw the pitch in the semifinal against St. Joseph’s Prep.

A big part of the reason he decided to play for his high school team this season was to win a PCL title, so he wasn’t going to miss the final. La Sallle’s team motto is “grind it out,” and Mittman was prepared to do just that with any pain on Monday.

“I couldn’t play against St Joe’s, it was too bad, but I worked through it today,” Mittman said. “I wasn’t missing this game. The experience has been great, everybody’s brought me in as a brother. It’s a family, it’s unreal. I wanted to run with my high school team, it’s my senior year, I wanted to show my high school team that I cared about them.”

La Salle topped Roman 3-0 in the regular season but the Cahillites were banged up in that game and none of the Explorers expected a result like that. Indeed, the two best defenses in the PCL played neck-and-neck soccer for 70 minutes, with chances at a premium.

It was a much-improved showing from La Salle’s defense, which was too stretched out and disconnected from the midfield in the semifinal draw with St. Joe’s Prep.

“We worked on some things that weren’t so good against Prep like closing the gap between us and the holding mids and staying compact as a unit and it showed tonight,” La Salle senior center back Bobby Bohner said. “We focused on attention to detail and work rate. In the first half, we were playing their style and playing over the top a little too much.”

Bohner said Roman kept five men back on defense and it was thwarting what La Salle wanted to do offensively, so the Explorers used the halftime break to settle in and adjust. In the second half, they began to keep the ball, swing it around the field and keep possession.

Essentially, they did the things that let them get the ball to Mittman and let the senior go to work. Mittman, a Bucknell recruit, just went at people all half and his work started drawing fouls and frustrating Roman Catholic.

La Salle’s players weren’t the only ones eager to get Mittman out for the school team. Explorers coach Tom McCaffrey, who teaches at La Salle, let Mittman know the opportunity was always open to him.

“He’s the man,” McCaffrey said. “We’ve had some conversations the last few years, I kept an eye on him as he went through the academy program at Continental. We knew the kind of player he was, the kind of guy that if we could get him out, he’d be a game-changer. You saw tonight when he settled the game down and made runs from the attacking central midfield position, it put them under a lot of pressure.”

Center midfielder Gio Randazzo was very happy to see Mittman back on the field on Monday. Randazzo, who picked up some of Mittman’s playmaking role, was able to slide back deeper in the midfield and let the attack-minded Mittman go to work.

“It made an incredible difference with the kind of player he is,” Randazzo said. “He really gets into people and wins tackles. He’s so offensive-minded and he just gets forward for us and creates chances.

“We were really happy he was coming out this season. We’ve been trying to get him for three years now and finally got him. It makes your life a lot easier as a midfielder when you have a guy to play with who rarely turns the ball over and he thinks so well with the ball.”

A foul handed La Salle a free kick just outside the left side of the box. Christian Calabretta’s service was punched skyward by Roman keeper Kevin Tobin. Bohner, who had been in the box, had dropped a few steps back and had a clear view of what followed.

“It popped up, Mittman hit in, someone might have collided with the keeper but there were a lot of people going up for it,” Bohner said. “Mittman hit it and I saw a Roman defender stepping back trying to head it, but he was already in the net and I saw it hit the roof of the net and just ran back and celebrated.”

The job wasn’t done and it was up to La Salle’s defense and keeper Brett Werner, who made a couple of key plays late. Werner was brave coming off his line as Roman threw numbers up and got a couple of dangerous free kicks in the final moments.

“It’s a bit of a déjà vu moment, I saw this coming, I saw them pushing up and I had to look back to last year to know what was coming,” Werner said. “I have trust in my teammates that they’re going to do their jobs and we’re going to get out of any situation.

“It’s surreal, I really can’t describe it. It’s going to kick in sometime later this week, two hard-fought seasons with two good results and now we can look forward to states.”

La Salle became the first repeat champion in the PCL since 2011-2012, when the Explorers also went back-to-back. It was the fourth straight year in the championship for Roman Catholic, which graduates just five seniors.

The Explorers face Northeast on Thursday for the District 12 4A title before states, but they weren’t worried about anything except their title, and one senior’s moment that got it for them, on Monday.

“Against St. Joe’s, maybe you can say we didn’t play as brothers,” Brigidi said. “Tonight, we for sure played like brothers.”

LA SALLE 1, ROMAN CATHOLIC 0
LA SALLE 0 1 – 1
ROMAN CATHOLIC 0 0 – 0
Goals: L – Jacob Mittman. Shots: L – 2, RC – 3. Saves: L – Brett Werner 2, RC – Kevin Tobin 2. Corners: L – 3, RC – 2.

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