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Battle-tested Strath Haven prepared for finals showdown with Shanahan

NETHER PROVIDENCE >> Jef Hewlings doesn’t blink when he lays out the stakes for his Strath Haven team Friday afternoon.

Hewlings won’t define the Panthers’ season by the result of Saturday’s PIAA Class 2A final. That’s not why he got into coaching. And lest anyone deride that as hollow coach-speak, Hewlings has the chops to back it up.

It was 1981. Hewlings was an athletic trainer at Malvern Prep when the athletic director, in desperate need of a warm body to coach lacrosse, found out that Hewlings played the game. That was good enough, and he was hired on the spot.

Thirty-eight seasons later, 33 as a head coach in two states and with stints as a college assistant interspersed, Hewlings will coach in his first state final when the Panthers collide with Bishop Shanahan (4:30 p.m., West Chester East). And when he tells players that the coaching journey has been worth more to him than the destination that is Saturday, even one that could include a shiny new trophy, you’d better believe he means it.

“I tell them how I feel,” Hewlings said. “How I feel about them is I’m proud of them.”

Hewlings has come close before, advancing to four state semifinals. His career has meandered through several stops — first at Malvern, 11 seasons as the head man at Penncrest, two stints as a Ridley assistant, founding and elevating a club program to varsity status in Oneonta, N.Y., four seasons at Emmaus before now his sixth at Strath Haven. And as one of the most respected coaches in Southeastern Pennsylvania, it’s not about banners and accolades for Hewlings.

Instead, he’s gratified to see a class of seniors — led by defenseman Ryan Morris and All-American midfielder Jeff Conner — grow from an 8-10 mark as freshmen to maximizing their potential, and then some.

“I didn’t get into it to win state championships, and here we are on the cusp of a state championship,” Hewlings said Friday, after a brief pre-graduation practice. “It’s about getting a group of kids to work together on and off the field, having them be good students and having them be good people and being successful together and embracing their roles. Of all the teams that I’ve had, this team has embraced their roles better than any other. And that has a lot to do with why we’re standing here practicing.”

It’s also why Hewlings isn’t concerned about this team buckling under pressure. The Panthers (19-5) had ample opportunities to do that in the District 1 third-place game, a win-or-go-home affair for the last states berth, when they trailed Radnor by six goals in the second half but rallied to win in overtime. They could’ve folded in the quarterfinals against two-time reigning state champs Springfield, which had clubbed them in the regular season. They could’ve sulked when a rain delay helped a two-goal lead over Mars evaporate in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s semi, only for the Panthers to prevail in overtime.

But they didn’t. Strath Haven is a battle-tested bunch, even as it faces its toughest test on the biggest stage.

“There’s nothing to really prepare for that,” Conner said. “Everyone’s nerves are going to be going. They’re going to look up in the crowd and see every seat in the stadium packed, standing-room only. I think it’s going to have to go back to the basics, let the fundamentals take control of what they’re doing on the field.”

This year’s final quadruple-header is anomalous, historically speaking. Strath Haven has followed the rich vein of results for Delco boys, the fifth straight year a squad has played for a championship. The previous four all took home titles, including at least two — Springfield in 2016, Penncrest in 2014 — that were consensus underdogs.

But the rest of the slate breaks with tradition. This is the first time since the PIAA began bestowing championships in 2009 that no Central League girls teams are represented in the final(s). Prior to 2018, just three non-Central League teams (Downingtown East in 2011, Archbishop Carroll and Kennard-Dale last year), had ever made a state final. Only Carroll won a title.
Lacrosse hasn’t traditionally been a fertile ground for private schools. Of the 20 previous champs, three were private schools — La Salle in 2009 and 2013, plus Carroll. That tally could double Saturday, via Shanahan, La Salle in the 3A boys final and Villa Maria in the 2A girls championship.

Then there’s the geographic spread: No team outside of Districts 1 and 12 had made the state final until Kennard-Dale last year, through a quirk of the Class 2A bracket that quarantined the District 1 teams to the Eastern half to cannibalize each other. The Rams are back this year, despite toting the fourth seed from District 3. They’re joined by the Manheim Township boys and girls, who each upended Delco teams in the semifinals to earn their way into 3A finals.

Shanahan handled Strath Haven, 9-6, in the District 1 semi. But that fits the narrative of the Panthers’ journey. They lost to Radnor and Springfield in the regular season before avenging both setbacks, improving by six and nine goals, respectively. That kind of turnaround would do the trick Saturday.

Conner leads the way with 95 goals and 57 assists this season for 152 points, the goal and point tallies believed to be Delco records. But others have stepped up in the postseason, from a six-game goal-scoring streak for Ibo Pio to Nicky Palermo’s game-winner against Mars.

All that leaves is for the Panthers to play one more game together. And the nerves of the moment won’t hold them back.

“He’s probably feeling the same thing we’re feeling,” Conner said of Hewlings. “He’s probably got a little nerves going. But that’s all going to go away after the first faceoff. So he’s just telling us that we’ve got to stick to what we’re doing all year — Ryan lead the defense, me lead the offense and just stick to everyone doing their roles and we’re going to be fine.”

“Based on today’s practice, I don’t feel like they feel pressure,” Hewlings said. “I feel like they’re having a good time, they’re enjoying the experience. We’ve always talked about making sure that they just enjoy the journey and if it lands where you want it to land, great. If it doesn’t, do something about it next time. I don’t feel like they’re under pressure.

“We’ll see at 4:30 tomorrow if they tighten up. But I don’t think this group does that.”

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