WEST GOSHEN >> For all the well-drilled scouting and emphasis on granular lacrosse skills, there seems to be some confusion on the Springfield sidelines: When, exactly, can a freshman year qualify as over?
“Coach always says, after a few games, we don’t consider them freshmen anymore,” senior long-stick midfielder Zac Methlie was saying Saturday.
“They haven’t been freshmen for the last eight or 10 games,” coach Tom Lemieux estimated.
We can disagree on the start times. But what’s certain is that the PIAA championship trophy that the Cougars toted home after a 4-3 victory over La Salle means that a historic freshman season definitely ended. Whatever the particulars, there’s no disputing the impact those rookies had on Springfield’s outstanding present and bright future.
Three freshmen saw the field Saturday against a high-numbers La Salle team that can and did confine its rookies to the end of the bench.
One of Springfield’s rookies, defender Pat Clemens — who, for the record, is fine with his No. 44 jersey — never leaves the field. Another, midfielder Jack Spence, was one of Lemieux’s first choices to take possession behind the net in the latter stages and be assailed by stick checks in an effort to make the clock tick faster.
The response of young players empowered to contribute right away epitomizes why Lemieux’s program has paired last year’s District One title with this year’s PIAA crown.
They have just three contributing seniors. Their goalie, the all-everything James Spence, is a grizzled veteran as a junior, having played since he was a freshman. Beyond hat-trick hero Mike Gerzabek, Springfield’s other goal was scored by a sophomore (Joe DeBernardi) on a possession when Springfield used two freshmen (Jack Spence and Liam Difonso). And Kyle Long, who dished three assists Saturday, is only a sophomore with over 150 career points.
So what’s behind the rapid ascendance? It can’t merely be a bumper crop generation in one medium-sized, closed-boundary school district, or intensive youth programs that excel in player development. Both of those are certainly true but hardly exclusively so.
It’s also a coaching staff willing to tell freshmen that if they put in the work and show themselves as the best player at a position, they won’t be forced to wait their turn for ceremony and seniority.
“I think it’s a great opportunity because he knows it’s not the upperclassmen so much as talent-wise, he’s going to put the best players out there that are going to succeed.” Clemens said. “Personally, I think it’s a great thing that he has that faith in me and the underclassmen on the team. And we can just play as hard as we can.”
Their emergence always comes within a structure. For Clemens, it means following the lead set by seniors Methlie and Pat Smyth, two steady contributors who were particularly brilliant Saturday in suffocating every aspect of La Salle’s attack.
“I don’t look at him as a freshman,” Methlie said. “But the belief in him, I trust him with everything. He’s one of our best players.”
“We ask these guys to play their role, not do any more or any less,” Lemieux said. “And when everyone buys into that, you have a special team, and this is the most special team I’ve ever been a part of.”
The young players have risen to the challenge. Jack Spence scored four goals in the District One quarters to get Springfield to states. Difonso scored in the first-round states win against Delaware Valley, and more importantly has taken midfield shifts to spell Mike Vent for his larger defensive duty as part of the Cougars’ first-choice posture.
And Clemens has been omnipresent, through a bumpy 1-5 start that the Cougars have finished with wins in 19 of 21 games.
The rookies of the group have acquired a new standard by which their careers will be judged.
“Right now, I’m mostly just in shock,” Clemens said. “I can’t really believe just me being a freshman, playing on the varsity field, it’s an amazing feeling. … We can always get better. It’s all uphill from here.”