WORCESTER >> Brayden Peck’s beaming expression is briefly replaced when he’s asked to get retrospective.
Peck was one of the leaders in an Avon Grove defense that stone-walled Central Bucks East, 7-5, in Tuesday’s PIAA Class 3A semifinal at Methacton, bringing the Red Devils to their stated annual goal of a state final. The rematch with Conestoga Saturday (4 p.m., West Chester East) marks the program’s first finals appearance since 2014, when Peck and his fellow seniors were freshmen.
But the defenseman’s mood changes swiftly in recalling that affair, a 12-7 loss to Penncrest on the turf at HersheyPark Stadium, using a word that Avon Grove’s powerhouse program is rarely accused of.
“It was a lot of nerves,” Peck said. “As a group, everyone was confident in each other, but there was still so many nerves because we’ve never been at that stage before. I definitely think now, being one of the leaders on this team, I can definitely translate that down and hopefully relieve everybody so we can stay confident, play with swagger and have fun out there.”
Times have changed in three years, for Avon Grove and in the Peck family.
In 2014, Peck was a lowly freshman with obvious upside trying to work his way into a rotation laden with Division I talent. He describes himself as “mostly a bench guy,” though he drew some man-down duty in the state final, and Avon Grove’s Ches-Mont domination allowed plenty of mop-up time for him to hone skills at an early age.
The leader on that Red Devils squad was Tanner Peck, a senior attackman now at Penn State, where Brayden will ply his trade next year. But for the elation they achieved in winning the District 1 title that season, they were heartbroken in Hershey, run through by a Lions’ squad that required playbacks to get to states but rode the hot scoring of Will Manganiello and the faceoff prowess of Dylan Protesto to the title.
“It was devastating,” Brayden said. “You always want to end the year with a win if it’s possible, and that’s just another chip on our shoulder. Our coaches talked about that. We’ve always wanted to get back to this game. We have it in front of us and now we’ve just got to make it happen.”
This year, Brayden is the senior leader, marshalling a defense that includes classmate Alex Muller and star junior Bryce DeMuth. The role of younger brother is played by Carson Peck, a sophomore midfielder who’s earned sporadic playing time this campaign. Also reversed is the mentor-mentee relationship for Brayden.
“I’m just going to kind of do the same thing that Tanner did for me as a mentor to him and just pass it down,” Brayden said. “Hopefully he’ll get some good out of it.”
There’s another precedent that the Red Devils hope to apply Saturday. Avon Grove dropped a 14-12 decision to Conestoga in the District 1 Class 3A title game two weeks ago. No team since the Conestoga powerhouse of 2012 has won the District 1 and PIAA crowns in the same year.
Each of the last three seasons, a District 1 team that didn’t win a district title — Penncrest as the fifth seed in 2014, Radnor and Springfield as the third seeds in 2015 and 2016, respectively — rebounded to claim the PIAA championship.
With the added motivation of avenging the district final loss, Brayden Peck and company seem to be hoarding chips for their loaded down shoulders. Whether the quest is to rectify a loss that is three weeks or three years old, they serve as potent drivers in the coveted final week of the season.
“We’ve talked about it since we lost that game, the District 1 championship, that we didn’t play our best lacrosse, and ever since that, that’s been on our backs,” Peck said. “That’s been pushing us ever since. We had the harder road, so I feel like we’re more prepared coming into this game. I definitely think we can take it. We just need to play our best lacrosse to end the year.”