SPRINGFIELD >> James Spence received his formal introduction to Central League lacrosse four games into his freshman season, provided by a friendly face.
Anointed the heir apparent to the Springfield goaltending throne from his first days of high school, Spence had won his first three high school games when the Cougars encountered Conestoga, a team that older brother Lucas, then a junior, had never beaten. So the task was really clear.
“Lucas always told me he’s never beaten Conestoga before,” James recalled last week. “And I remember we came out strong, Lucas came out really strong, and we beat Conestoga by a lot that year.”
The victory became No. 4 of the 79 Spence tallied in his storied career. That success was shaped by a tale of three brothers, which has in turn determined the direction of what is, at the moment, Pennsylvania’s premier lacrosse program.
Lucas, who graduated in 2015 as a three-time All-Delco attackman, is two years James’ senior. Youngest brother, Jack, is a sophomore midfielder, brimming with all the promise you’d expect from the baby of such an illustrious family.
With James sandwiched in the middle, he believes he’s gotten the best of all worlds — as Lucas’ mentee and Jack’s mentor. And the nature of his position, a goalie to his brothers the goal-scorers, provides for engrossing sibling dynamics.
“I think it’s me wanting to stop Lucas from scoring, being that younger brother to stop my older brother,” James said. “And then I think I kind of want Jack to be able to score on me almost, because if he can get by me, I know he can get the ball by a lot of other goalies. And if Jack can do well, I want him to do as well as possible (him) being the younger brother, and I always want to be able to stop Lucas knowing that I can stop his shot.”
However James Spence perceives the differential pressures of his clan (which includes sister, Autumn, a year older than Lucas), there’s no denying how formative they’ve been in the illustrious career James has sculpted. Of the three, he’s the only one (yet) that can claim starring roles in two District 1 and two PIAA championships. His position as the program’s all-time leader in saves and wins, from a school that has produced a raft of All-American and major-college talent between the posts, is unimpeachable.
And Spence now adds another accolade: The 2017 Daily Times Boys Lacrosse Player of the Year.
Joining Spence on the first team are Springfield teammates Kyle Long and Pat Clemens; the Haverford School quartet of T.J. Malone, Johnny Nostrant, Chris Hervada and Joel Trucksess; Garnet Valley’s midfield pair of Matt Moore and Jacob Buttermore; Episcopal Academy’s Conner Delaney; Strath Haven’s Jeffrey Conner and Haverford High’s Luke McCallion.
Moore’s nod is the capstone on the first ever boys lacrosse four-time All-Delco career. Long and Conner are two-time picks, while Spence is a three-time All-Delco.
The senior class dominates eight of 12 spots; Long and Conner lead a star-studded class of 2018 along with Malone, while Clemens is the lone sophomore. The All-Delco team is chosen in consultation with local coaches.
Since the first All-Delco boys lacrosse team in 1997, Spence is the seventh goalie named Player of the Year. Two others — Austin Kaut in 2010 and Drew Adams in 2005 — were Springfield grads.
The connection between the players isn’t just abstract an concept. Kaut serves as a Springfield assistant, while Adams has worked with Spence as a youth coach. The fact that Spence has compiled those program marks in wins and saves (841, displacing 1995 grad Kevin Keenan) against the backdrop of such accoplished company heightens his appreciation, as does his personal link to such figures.
“It’s awesome to be considered one of those goaltenders,” Spence said. “I’ve always looked up to them. Austin’s always helped me out. Drew Adams has helped me out, he’s coached me. Kevin Keenan has helped me out. … We’re all friends with each other. I guess I’m trying to do the same thing for the younger kids.”
Spence’s earliest lacrosse memories date to that 2010 season, just before Lucas entered high school. His recollections seem inextricable from the family aspect, and that always follows two lines lines of thought. The first is gratitude for the lessons Lucas and classmates imparted to James. Second is the obligation to pass knowledge to the next crop.
“Lucas really kind of put me under his wing with that senior and junior class,” James said. “As a freshman and a sophomore, when I was doing things wrong, he would always pick me up and talk to me. And he always kind of stepped it up when I wasn’t playing well. …
“When I got older, Jack came into high school, and me and Jack have always been close to each other. So I kind of took him under my wing, kind of to do the same thing that Lucas did for me. I thought how I felt as a freshman and figured Jack was feeling the same way.”
As a senior, James was the leader by example. He stopped 60.4 percent of shots in the Cougars 22-win campaign, repeating as state champs in the newly created Class 2A while claiming the District 1 crown, both in one-goal decisions over West Chester Henderson. Spence shined with nine saves in the district final, a 4-3 edge, and eight in the state final for a 9-8 decision.
Statistically, his best performance came in a 15-save outing against Hatboro-Horsham, a 6-5 double-overtime win, while he held Radnor to one goal with 12 saves in the regular-season encounter.
But Spence is more than just an elite shot-stopper. He marshals a defense like few others, a big part of Springfield’s serially stingy approach. His instincts for fine points of technique — fastidiousness about rebound control, covering shots by quickly scampering out of his cage toward the end line, efficiency in clears, particularly when connecting with Jack coming out of the box — are without equal.
As nonpareil are the accomplishments that James has backstopped his team toward. There, again, the credit is attributed to the family aspect, of the Spence and Springfield varieties.
“I think after that 2015 season with Lucas, his senior year and the district championship, we started to see we’re not any other random team,” James said. “We’re a good Springfield team and it gave us a sense of pride. And going forward from that gave us a little confidence as well.”