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La Salle keeps Conestoga at arm’s length in heavyweight battle

SPRINGFIELD (MONTCO) >> There’s an argument to be made that both Conestoga and La Salle underachieved last season with regard to both programs’ expectations.

The Explorers took a shocking defeat to Central Bucks East in the state quarterfinals when it looked like La Salle holding the state championship trophy was a mere formality. Once the Explorers bowed out, the District 1 champion Pioneers took over as a heavy favorite to bring home gold, only to be on the losing end of a double-overtime heartbreaker against Avon Grove in the championship game.

The expectations won’t change much this year, though. If anything, there’s a heightened sense of urgency for both teams, knowing they’re both loaded to the gills for a run at unseating the Red Devils.

It’s early, but based on Wednesday’s 8-3 La Salle win over Conestoga, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that the Explorers aren’t the team to beat in PIAA Class 3A…after Avon Grove, of course.

Conestoga’s Kent Hjelm dodges against La Salle’s Joey Burnham. (MATT CHANDIK)

La Salle used a suffocating defense to limit Conestoga’s offense to one goal in the final three quarters, courtesy of 10 Michael Clibanoff saves, while Matthew Clibanoff and Ethan Masucci each tallied twice to pace the Explorers’ balanced offense.

“We come in expecting a lot from (Conestoga). We prepared well, we watched a lot of film, and I think we came in with the right mindset and I think we handled ourselves very well on the defensive end,” said longstick midfielder Dan Jordon, a Navy commit. “Going up against a team like ’Stoga, bringing in the historic aspect of the La Salle-’Stoga rivalry, definitely brings kind of a different vibe. The whole team just kind of stepped up and we were ready to go.”

It didn’t take long for Jordon and his defensive mates to clamp down on the Pioneers. Will Schnorr tapped in a rebound to open the scoring and later added a second when he picked off an errant clear and snapped it into an empty net, but after that, Conestoga couldn’t get anything going. The Pioneers made the Explorers’ lives a little easier with a plethora of unforced turnovers, but La Salle also had all of the answers for a team still searching its 2018 offensive identity after losing standout attackmen like Tommy Sopko (Bucknell) and Henry Berg (Mount St. Mary’s).

“They were pressing out pretty far on us and we’re not used to it normally,” said faceoff midfielder James Reilly, a Georgetown signee who was a perfect 13-for-13 at the faceoff X. “They know how to put pressure on the right people, whether it was subbing or us trying to get the ball around, and they’re really good at getting on hands and pressuring us.”

“I just think our fundamentals weren’t doing too well today,” Schnorr said. “We really killed ourselves on offense. Our defense was holding them for long possessions, then we’d get it down at the other end and just turn it over. Ultimately, I think that killed us.”

Chris Cara eventually broke the scoreless drought for Conestoga (0-3) when he ripped a feed from LSM Joey Walton, but the Pioneers couldn’t break through again. The group of Jordon, Brett Mallee, Joey Burnham and Bob Bohner was particularly stingy, and Clibanoff was sharp when he needed to be. If La Salle is going to finally make it back to the top of the PIAA mountain for the first time since the Matt Rambo era, it just might be its defense that leads the way.

“Last year, they made it a little bit further than us, and we’re a little bit jealous because we beat them handily in the regular season,” said Burnham, a Saint Joseph’s commit. “We kind of take that personally and think that we should have been there. Since we might play them against them in the playoffs again, you want to get that first win under your belt and get some confidence.”

It’s hard not to be confident after a win like that.

La Salle 8, Conestoga 3
Conestoga 2 0 10 – 3
La Salle 2 3 1 2 – 8
First-quarter scoring: CON – Schnorr, 6:30. LS – Masucci, 3:53. LS – Ma. Clibanoff, 2:21. CON – Schnorr, 0:46.
Second-quarter scoring: LS – Ma. Clibanoff (Masucci), 8:25. LS – Pinto (Duffy), 5:29. LS – Meagher, 3:29.
Third-quarter scoring: LS – LaMond, 8:27. CON – Cara (Walton), 7:23.
Fourth-quarter scoring: LS – Mockaitis, 8:15. LS – Masucci, 2:49.
Goalies: MacMillan (CON) 9 saves; Mi. Clibanoff (LS) 10 saves. Faceoffs: Conestoga 14, La Salle 1.

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