ROYERSFORD >> The Spring-Ford boys lacrosse team finally broke through.
Near-misses at this stage of the season had become a semi-annual tradition for the Rams, who entered Tuesday night’s District 1-AAA boys lacrosse playback against Downingtown East searching for their first PIAA playoff berth in program history while still nursing their wounds from a quarterfinal loss to Central Bucks East on Saturday.
Tuesday was a night for healing.
Spring-Ford put together a dominant third quarter while holding the Cougars scoreless over the final 27 minutes, using long possessions to suck the life out of the game and breathe new life into their season. With a 9-3 victory over Downingtown East, the Rams earned their long-sought first PIAA Championships berth in program history.
“Finally. It’s always hard to get over that hurdle you’ve been at the edge of for so long,” Rams coach Kevin Donnelly said. “A lot of people thought after our graduating class last year that we wouldn’t be able to do it. But these guys have worked hard all year and really put their nose to the grindstone and took care of business.”
Senior Danny Cassidy again led the way with four goals while sophomore Peyton Gensler supplied two scores, both in pivotal spots. His first punctuated a run of three goals in three minutes in the second quarter while his score on a feed from Tate Pijanowski with 1.4 seconds left in the third quarter for a six-goal lead was effectively the dagger.
“I’m really excited,” Gensler said. “I know from watching my brother Carter (2016 graduate) play, he never got the chance (to play in states), it’s always ended in this game. Being a sophomore and helping the team get to states and doing my part, it’s a big part of history and I’m really glad to be part of the first team to get there.
“And I’m excited to see where this takes us because I’m hoping we can go far.”
Gensler with a killer goal, 1.4 left 3Q, on Pijanowski find.
— Austin Hertzog (@AustinHertzog) May 24, 2017
It will be the farthest a Spring-Ford (18-3) team has gone after letdowns in the district quarterfinals and playbacks have been a fixture of their recent history.
For Donnelly, in his 14th season, it was a crucial step for a program he’s built into the seven-time defending Pioneer Athletic Conference champions and a team that usually hovers around 20-win seasons.
“When you’re in the offseason, you can start to think, ‘Am I good enough to get to the next level?’ That’s something that’s resonated with me for a long time so it’s really nice to take that next step,” he said.
“But that’s not why you build a program. It’s really about all the guys, all the guys you see coming back, having five coaches that played for you coaching with you on the sidelines, it’s all that stuff. That’s why you do this … but the winning helps.”
Downingtown East, which got two goals from Colin Armbrust and two assists from Grant Peden, saw its season end at 15-7 after taking a step forward from last season when the Cougars fell in the first round of districts. Downingtown East entered playbacks by a 12-3 loss to No. 1 Avon Grove on Saturday.
“We learned hopefully and we have a young group,” coach Todd Cliggett said. “We have eight seniors on the team and 5-6 play. We have a big sophomore class, a big junior class coming back and a freshman goalie so we’re moving down the right path. But it’s hard work and it’s hard to get to states.”
After a first quarter that was close but lacked sharpness, Cassidy scored twice in a run that gave Spring-Ford a 5-2 lead. Brian Dignen pulled one back for East with 3:33 before halftime. But it was the last Cougars score there would be as Spring-Ford extended its lead and killed the game off the rest of the way.
“They possessed it about 80 percent of the game,” Cliggett said. “It got us out of our system and we tried to do too much every possession. Our game plan is their game plan, we wanted to possess the ball, too. Halftime it’s 5-3 and it’s anybody’s game but the third quarter was the turning point. We just couldn’t get the ball.”
The Rams left no doubts with two goals in the final minute of the third quarter, first Cassidy on a spin move and then Pijanowski, seemingly wasting the final seconds but instead hitting Gensler for the score.
“We work on that at practice, the 30-second drill,” Gensler said. “They were pressing out on me all game and I back-cut it. Once I shot it and it went in I saw their heads drop and thought we had the game if we kept playing like this.”
Spring-Ford was left jarred Saturday. Tuesday they left jubilant.
“Saturday in the locker room was as quiet as I’ve ever heard it. Ever,” Donnelly said. “Yesterday we had a great practice, they came out with the offense clicking, the defense playing hard and you could sense they were not finished.”
NOTES >> Other scorers for Spring-Ford were Jarrod Marenger (1G), Ryan Rosenblum (1G, 1A) and Drew Giovinco (1A). Goalie Kyle Pettine performed well with 10 saves. Also scoring for East was Jack Mulcahy (one assist) while goalie Nico Iacovino had six saves. … Spring-Ford will host Haverford Thursday in the fifth-place game for PIAA seeding.