WEST GOSHEN >> Soaked by a cooler of water after a stressful afternoon on West Chester East’s baking turf, Springfield boys lacrosse coach Tom Lemieux received a long line of joyous, blue-clad fans with hugs and high fives Saturday.
Joining that crowd was one of the people most attuned to the emotions swirling in Lemieux’s head.
John Begier, who made the trip first and foremost to see his daughter’s Radnor team contest a state final in the front half of the doubleheader, stuck around for the boys game, waiting to see who would succeed his Radnor Raiders as state champions.
And when the final whistle blew, handing Springfield a 4-3 win over La Salle, Begier was among those ecstatic for Lemieux and the Cougars.
Saturday’s finals were monumental for the PIAA, not just for the raucous crowd drawn by four eastern teams — get this — playing at an eastern Pennsylvania venue, or for the first crowns won by the Springfield boys and Conestoga girls since the PIAA started sanctioning the sport in the 2008-09 academic year.
They mark the end of an era, with the football-driven glut of class expansion doubling the number of champions next season via Class AA and AAA tournaments. But this postseason represents the height of another era, one of Central League domination. And a switch to two classifications may not dampen that.
The girls competition has basically been the Central League final, part two, for nearly a decade. Only one team not hailing from the league (Downingtown East in 2011) has made a state final. All eight titles, led by Garnet Valley’s four, have been monopolized by Central League schools.
Parity has been more elusive on the boys side. The early days were dominated by La Salle and Conestoga, remnants of the Eastern Pennsylvania Lacrosse Association oligarchy, that contested four of the first five finals. The other championship game in that stretch featured St. Joseph’s Prep interloping to be dismissed by Conestoga.
Since 2014, the doors have been thrown open, and the Central League has stormed in. Penncrest, Radnor and Springfield are the last three champions. Each of the last two eastern finals have been showdowns between league rivals (Radnor and Springfield last year, Springfield and Strath Haven this season). Most remarkably, the last three champs find themselves in Class AA next year, a rare case in which the big boys can breathe easier.
The stated goal of class expansion, particularly in a sport like lacrosse where the vast majority of teams are concentrated in three districts (1, 3 and 7), is to foster competition statewide. Doubling the number of teams that experience state tournament lacrosse should help that, exposing them to a standard that they can work toward over a number of years.
Some balance is preserved: District One goes from five of 16 state berths under the current system to 11 of 32. All four Class AA teams plus the District 12 representative land in the top half of the preliminary bracket, setting the stage for a vapid final that will pit a battle-hardened eastern team against a likely overmatched western side.
For all the hopeful talk about inclusion, it’s worked in District One. While the ruling class remains select, the reach has expanded geographically. Upper Dublin’s program rose to its first district title in 2016, Central Bucks East made states a year ago and Spring-Ford qualified this season, showing the diffusion of talent across region.
Yet still the titles seem most concentrated in Delco. And that success is underpinned by a tight fraternity of coaches, like Lemieux, Begier and many others, forged through a mutual respect and an us-against-the-world mentality that crystalizes against resource-rich, boundary-free schools like La Salle and St. Joe’s Prep.
That’s why, when Lemieux and Strath Haven coach Jef Hewlings convened last Tuesday after the PIAA semifinals at Penncrest — an 8-5 Springfield win in the teams’ third meeting of the season — there was no animosity. There was merely the friendly encouragement from the elder statesman Hewlings: Now, go win a state title for the Central League.
That mission was soundly accomplished, and it was worth celebrating.