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Defense helps Gerzabek, Springfield live the PIAA dream

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WEST GOSHEN >> Good things came in threes for Mike Gerzabek Saturday afternoon.

The Springfield attackman scored three first-half goals, which has been par for the course in his stellar senior campaign. He added a new lucky number – 74, as in the number of games he’s played across three sports this year for the Cougars.

Springfiel's Mike Gerzabek celebrates the final whistle of a 4-3 win over La Salle in the PIAA final Saturday. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

Springfield’s Mike Gerzabek celebrates the final whistle of a 4-3 win over La Salle in the PIAA final Saturday. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

And he added a shiny medal in glittering gold to his trophy case.

Gerzabek’s goals provided the cushion for a magisterial defense performance by the Cougars, who marvelously stifled La Salle to claim its first PIAA championship, 4-3, at West Chester East High School.

The win was a masterpiece of the brand of team lacrosse Springfield coach Tom Lemieux espouses. It ended, like many a fruitless La Salle foray into the attacking half, at the hands of a Springfield defense that shackled every weapon the Explorers could summon.

But it began with Gerzabek, the Cabrini commit who enjoyed deep runs in the postseason sans titles with the Springfield hockey and soccer teams.

He opened the scoring at 6:15 of the first quarter off a feed from Kyle Long. The dynamic duo teamed up against four minutes later. And the capper was the most vital and the eventual game-winner with 25 ticks before halftime.

With Springfield (20-7) having run out to a 3-0 lead, La Salle crept back in at 3-2. But Gerzabek dashed the momentum, being stripped, then recovering the groundball and displaying the perseverance to fire home a shot off the inside of the post.

With the four goals in hand, Springfield spent the rest of the day defending with confidence and toeing the line between conservative clock management and excessively passive caution. With the stoutness of Springfield’s defense, that line is thicker than most.

Springfield's Pat Smyth was outstanding in pacing the Cougars to a 4-3 win over La Salle in the PIAA final Saturday. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

Springfield’s Pat Smyth was outstanding in pacing the Cougars to a 4-3 win over La Salle in the PIAA final Saturday. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

“It’s hard because in the state championship game, you’re not going to be able to hold the ball for four minutes,” said Gerzabek, who finishes the season with 67 goals. “La Salle’s a good team and they’re going to come out and press and they’re going to do whatever they can to get the ball back. So you have to attack the goal.”

La Salle (21-4) did plenty of attacking, just not much scoring. The District 12 champions were held to three or fewer goals by PIAA opposition for the first time since March 21, 2009.

The Explorers started slowly, missing several senior starters for the first quarter in what coach Bill Leahy would only call “an in-house issue.” That house was left shaken by Springfield, which prepared for the full lineup but was pleasantly surprised by the subtractions.

“To be honest, I thought that La Salle was just underestimating us and starting other people,” Gerzabek said. “Together we watched a bunch of film and we had it set of who we were going up against. I didn’t know why they weren’t starting. But we did our best against them.”

That early run offered the Cougars the platform from which to dictate terms.

PHOTOS: Springfield’s PIAA final victory gallery

“We can’t run with them – we haven’t been able to run with anybody all year – so we had to play our style of game,” Lemieux said. “We knew that if we could grind it out and make it a six-on-six game, we could hopefully end up on top. And fortunately, that’s what happened.”

Even while ceding the majority of possession to Anthony Giuliani’s 10-for-11 day at the X, Springfield’s defense held firm. Marshalled by seniors Pat Smyth and Zac Methlie, the latter of whom shook off an upper respiratory infection that caused a high fever all week, the Cougars caused turnovers at will.

Short-stick middie Matt Ries, who along with Mike Vent logged major minutes, caused a turnover that Smyth gobbled up to turn upfield for Gerzabek’s second goal. Smyth was a constant presence picking off stray passes, while defensive mates Nick Matty and Pat Clemens kept the Explorers at bay and made sure the four goals stood up for the win.

“There’s a little bit of a fear,” Methlie said. “There’s confidence too, but you’ve got to use that fear and play hard. You can’t give up. You can’t think, ‘oh, this game’s over.’”

Jared Walls, one of those benched from the start, scored with seven minutes to play. Then came a volley of turnovers on both sides, a La Salle on which Springfield couldn’t convert, and desperate potshots by the Explorers.

As he’s been all season, the peerless James Spence was spectacular with eight saves, including one with 12 seconds left that he covered to give Springfield its final possession. The junior admitted it was quality over quantity thanks to his defense’s ruthless execution, and though the chaos, the Springfield defense permitted a paltry 10 second-half shots.

“We had to play good off-ball defense and we knew what they were going to do, and our defense played stellar,” Spence said. “They’ve been doing amazing all playoffs, but this game, they definitely stepped it up.”

La Salle pushed its way back into the game in the second quarter, with Chris Hladczuk and Colin Cahill scoring, the latter on an assist from Brett Baskin that was the junior’s only statistical contribution. Springfield posted a goose egg in the third, owning the lion’s share of chances with 10 shots.

The momentum could’ve shifted in the third, when Joe DeBernardi, who scored the other first-quarter tally, rang a shot off the post 37 seconds before Walls scored.

But that was all that Spence and his mates allowed, controlling the ball just enough and funneling La Salle’s increasingly frantic attack to less dangerous areas to notch a monumental victory.

“We weren’t even supposed to make the playoffs, and to come all the way down here and win a state championship, it’s just crazy,” said Ries of the fifth-place finishers in the Central League. “It’s just the craziest feeling.”

As for Gerzabek, Saturday was a chance to go out on a high. His Cougars had fallen in the PIAA Class AAA boys soccer semis and the Flyers Cup Class A final.

This time, though, there would be no disappointment.

“I’m living in a dream,” he said. “I’m living in everyone’s dream.”

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