LONDON GROVE — Rightly or wrongly, the widely held perception was that the finalists for last year’s Class 3A PIAA boys’ lacrosse state title were meeting Tuesday for 2018 District 1 supremacy.
The problem was that the clash between top-seeded Avon Grove and number four Conestoga wasn’t the final. That comes on Thursday against upstart Garnet Valley.
And with apologies to the 15th seeded Jaguars, who have been a great Cinderella story, the Red Devils and Pioneers waged a championship-worthy battle that went into a third overtime before Conestoga senior Nick Braendel ended it with an outstanding individual effort.
“That was two good teams going at it hard,” said Avon Grove head coach Eric Jackson. “It’s a shame somebody had to lose that one.”
The final score was 9-8. There were five ties and lots of drama from two teams that are developing quite a postseason rivalry. The Pioneers are defending district champs. The Red Devils are defending state champs. And each beat the other nearly a year ago to get their titles.
“That was a fantastic game,” said ’Stoga head coach Brody Bush. “(Avon Grove) is a great team. They match up well against us and our boys hung in there. They were patient.
“These are the type of games I like to coach. These are fun.”
Now 17-4 overall, Conestoga extended its winning streak to 15 and will get a chance to defend its District 1 crown against Central League rival Garnet Valley. The Pioneers topped the Jags 10-6 in the regular season about a month ago.
“It’s an opponent we really know and we have a rivalry with them,” Bush said. “I’m sure (Garnet Valley is) going to bring (its) best game.”
Avon Grove (17-2 overall) will await its PIAA Tournament assignment following the district third-place game with No. 3 Upper Dublin in its quest to win back-to-back state titles.
“We will learn from this,” Jackson said. “I think we grew a lot as a team (Tuesday).
“I am proud of this group. They batted and the important thing is we get to keep playing and practicing tomorrow.”
With time running out in the third OT, and both sides reaching the point of collective exhaustion, Braendel swooped in from behind the Devils’ cage, got a step on defender James Chastain, and scored the game winner past Avon Grove keeper Andrew Spencer, who was outstanding throughout.
“I knew once I got a step on the defender and I was able to get around the goal, that I could get a shot off,” Braendel said.
“Both teams were really exhausted,” Bush added. “Nick has a way of finding an open shot at critical times. He also did it against Malvern (Prep). I am really proud of him.”
Neither side had more than a two goal lead at any point, but thanks to a 5-1 second half rally, Conestoga pulled in front 8-6 on a goal by Cliff Madden with 5:28 to go. That’s when Avon Grove faceoff specialist Nate Hammond outmaneuvered ’Stoga’s James Reilly, got possession and scored immediately. And then his teammate Zach Augustine notched the equalizer with 2:12 remaining.
The Pioneers were on offense for most of the second OT but Spencer kept the Devils in it, making three saves on one possession (he finished with 18). And Conestoga’s Tate Kienzle nearly ended it but his shot hit off the crossbar as time ran out.
“At the end it was a goalie war between two excellent goalies and both defenses came up big,” Jackson said.
“At that point the kids were just going on heart and throwing their bodies on the line.”
Avon Grove was more of the aggressor in the early going and scored three of the first four goals and five of the first eight, but ’Stoga kept counterpunching. A big turnaround came in the final seconds of the first half and the opening seconds of the second. A steal and a breakaway goal by Kent Hjelm knotted the score at 6-6 at the half, and then Kienzle opened the second half with a goal just five seconds in to give the Pioneers their first lead.
“We sort of rode the momentum during that stretch,” Bush said.
Madden and Kienzle led the way with two goals each for ’Stoga. Augustine had a game-high four goals for the Devils. And in a heavyweight battle in the faceoff circle, Hammond nipped O’Reilly 13-9 on face offs, but both scored a goal. Hammond is headed to the Naval Academy and O’Reilly has signed with Georgetown.
“Our offense kept plugging away but our defense was doing a heck of a job keeping us in the game,” Braendel said.
“It felt like a high-level district final. It was pretty intense.”
At the game’s conclusion, Pioneers’ goalie Scott MacMillan’s voice was shot after calling out defensive slides through four quarters and nearly three overtime periods. He wound up turning aside 14 shots.
“We all remember what happened the last time we played (Avon Grove),” he said. “We’d like to win back-to-back districts, but it’s all about going after the state title.”
And don’t be a bit surprised if, just like a year ago, these two wound up meeting again in the state tournament – perhaps with another state championship on the line.
“It was a bitter taste the way the season ended and I know our guys were excited to play (Avon Grove) again, whether it’s in the semis of the final,” Bush said.
“We might see them again in states.”
Conestoga 9, Avon Grove 8, 3 OT
Conestoga 3 3 1 1 0 0 1 — 9
Avon Grove 3 3 0 2 0 0 0 — 8
Conestoga goals: Braendel, Madden 2, Kienzel 2, Nicholson, Logan, Reilly, Hjelm.
Avon Grove goals: Augustine 4, Hammond, Russo, Smith, N. Chastain.
Goalie saves: MacMillan (C) 14; Spencer (AG) 18.
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