WEST CHESTER – Saturday marked the fourth postseason boys’ lacrosse showdown between Conestoga and Avon Grove in the last 373 days. And in the previous three meetings, these two state powers staged razor close battles that included a total of five overtime periods, including three OTs just 11 days earlier.
But on Saturday, in the quarterfinals of the PIAA 3A Tournament at West Chester Henderson, the Pioneers played with a chip on their collective shoulders, and rode it to a great start and, ultimately, a convincing 12-6 triumph over the Red Devils.
“(Avon Grove) ended our season last year, and we are really salty about it,” said ’Stoga goaltender Scott MacMillan. “We came out 100 percent.
“I had a good feeling about this game.”
Conestoga (19-5 overall) nipped Avon Grove in the district semifinals on May 22nd, but revenge was actually on the Pioneers’ side. A year ago, the Devils topped the Pioneers in the state final.
“Our guys were really excited about playing (Avon Grove) again, especially in light of what happened last season,” ’Stoga head coach Brody Bush acknowledged. “Losing to them in the state final and beating them in districts (in 2017), we didn’t want that to happen again. I think our guys were extra motivated and hungry.”
The Pioneers will take on the La Salle-Parkland winner on Tuesday for the right to advance to the state title game next weekend. The Devils season ends at 18-3, and their chance to defend the state title is extinguished.
“I’m proud of our guys,” said Avon Grove head coach Eric Jackson. “They fought until the end. I love this team. It was a great group of guys to be with.”
At one point early in the second half, Conestoga was ahead 7-1 and in total command. Then the Red Devils made it interesting with a gutsy rally that cut the margin to two. And then there was a 90-minute weather delay with 3:23 left in the third quarter with the Pioneers up 8-5.
“I knew that was coming and so did our guys,” Bush said of the pushback. “Avon Grove is such a talented team and well coached.
“It was nice having the lead going into the break.”
Less than a minute after the restart, ’Stoga’s Tate Kienzle upped the margin to four, and then James Reilly – who left the game for a while after feeling nauseous – scored to make it 10-5 with 9:27 to go. In between, Avon Grove’s Zach Augustine appeared to score, but it was disallowed.
“I’ll have to watch the tape on that one,” Jackson said. “(The officials) called us off sides, which I don’t know how.”
The Devils did get a goal from Scooter Whiteside with just over five minutes remaining, but Avon Grove lost its composure a bit, and gave up two late goals while trying to kill off separate penalties.
“We had our mind set on winning this game,” said senior Kent Hjelm, who finished with three goals.
“We just played really good team lacrosse,” Bush added. “I am kind of surprised. I thought it would be closer.”
Already comfortably ahead at the half, Will Schnorr added a goal and an assist to put ’Stoga up 7-1 following a pair of faceoff wins by junior P.J. Hewitt, who was filling in for Reilly. But less than a minute later, the Devils woke up on a critical goal by Jason Lengel.
“We knew a lead that big wouldn’t hold for too long,” Hjelm said.
It wrestled away the momentum and Avon Grove began to claw their way back into the contest thanks to a 4-0 rally on additional goals by Whiteside and a couple by Jake Smith.
“Our kids never quit,” Jackson said. “That’s a testament to them.”
Hjelm halted the run, however, with his second goal of the game to make it 8-5. And then two minutes later, play was halted for rain and lightning.
“I thought it was going to hurt us, but it was fine,” said MacMillan, who finished with 13 saves.
“We had some momentum going, but we talk all the time about not worrying about things that are out of our control,” Jackson added. “That was certainly one of them.”
In the first half alone, Avon Grove’s Nate Hammond was a dominant 7-1 on face offs against Reilly, but the Devils were unable to take advantage.
“(Conestoga) came out much hotter than us,” Jackson said. “We came out flat and not as aggressive as we normally are.”
When Smith scored early in the second quarter to slice the Conestoga lead to 2-1, it looked like the start of another classic battle. But the Pioneers finished the half with three straight goals to take a commanding 5-1 lead into the break. And ’Stoga generated a 13-8 shots on goal edge.
“Our defense played out of their minds,” Hjelm said. “When they play like that it gives the offense energy.”
Conestoga 12, Avon Grove 6
Conestoga 1 4 4 3 — 12
Avon Grove 0 1 4 1 — 6
Conestoga goals: Hjelm 3, Braendel, Reilly, Kienzle, Schnorr, Madden, Cost, Cara, Walton, Murphy.
Avon Grove goals: Whiteside 2, Smith 3, Lengel.
Goalie saves: MacMillan (C) 13; Spencer (AG) 12.
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