SOUTH COVENTRY >> The words came unscripted from Michael Clibanoff in the middle of La Salle’s halftime huddle.
Intense, direct, passionate and inspired, Clibanoff poured out his soul to his teammates, who he considers brothers, about what had to change in the second half. After a lackluster start, the Explorers found themselves trailing Conestoga and 24 minutes away from seeing all their hours of work and sweat fall short of the state title game.
Clearly inspired, La Salle won the second half in emphatic fashion and then the game 7-4 over the Pioneers in their PIAA Class 3A semifinal Tuesday afternoon at Owen J Roberts.
“Clib got us fired up with that halftime speech and we came out firing,” Explorers faceoff man Connor Helm said. “We brought the energy we’d brought the previous few games and it really showed up in the second half.”
Helm was one of numerous catalysts for La Salle, which again relied on a gritty team effort to top a very good Pioneers squad that had finished second in the District 1 playoffs. Yet for as good as La Salle looked after halftime, the Explorers were every bit as deserving of the 3-1 halftime deficit they faced to inspire Clibanoff’s fiery speech.
La Salle didn’t get to the field as early as it normally does and as a result had to rush through parts of its warm-up routine. Coach Bill Leahy said that, coupled with the slow pace the team played at in the second half of its quarterfinal win over Parkland, seemed to have his team stuck in low gear in the first quarter.
Stoga’s Nick Cost was happy to take advantage, assisting Will Schnorr’s opening goal and then scoring his own as the Pioneers took a 2-0 lead after the opening frame.
“We played as slow as you can play the other night and we were nervous, everybody is,” Leahy said. “You have a natural tightness and you’re still playing super-slow, not that we’re fast, but we’re not that slow and things didn’t go well early.”
— Andrew Robinson (@ADRobinson3) June 5, 2018
La Salle’s defense, which senior long pole Joe Burnham said didn’t start well either, made sure that Conestoga wasn’t able to build a bigger lead than the 3-0 edge it got on Kent Hjelm’s terrific individual effort with 4:41 left in the second quarter.
“With the exception of the first quarter, we thought our defense was pretty good once we started communicating,” Burnham said. “At first we were worried only about our matchups and playing one-on-one defense, which is exactly what it seemed like they wanted to do on their offense so were just giving them what they wanted. Once we started playing as a team, it started flowing a little bit better and we carried that into the second half.”
A good defensive unit in lacrosse is built on trust and Burnham said that’s exactly what the Explorers had to get back to playing with. The long poles and defensive mids stepped up their level of play, started playing for and covering each other and Clibanoff, the team’s senior goalie, was again rock solid in the net with nine saves.
Aside from upping the energy in the second half, La Salle needed a spark on the faceoff X where Conestoga’s James Reilly went 6-0 in the first half. Enter Helm, who despite giving up more than a couple inches to Reilly, split the draws in the third quarter.
None were bigger than the opening faceoff of the half, which Helm went clamp-to-clamp on and won. The junior credited the play of wings Shane Cassel and Dan Jordan, plus pep talks from a teammate and assistant coach Kevin Dougherty, a former La Salle faceoff man, that got him going.
“(Reilly)’s talented but John (Giuliani) came up and said ‘you got him,’ John and I work together at practice, he beats me up a little bit but I wouldn’t be where I am without him,” Helm said. “I was going to go counters but (Dougherty) told me I could do it and to go with my move.”
Matt Clibanoff scored with 1:48 left in the first half to give the La Salle offense some life and spurred by Helm on the X and the defense continuing to clamp down, it really got going in the third quarter. Ethan LaMond scored off that first faceoff win, sparking a 4-0 Explorer run.
“We got our feet under us and decided to start talking more,” LaMond, who scored two goals, said. “We came out pretty flat, we weren’t communicating and dealing with the nerves of a big game like that. We got back to doing what we do.”
Explorers’ Chris Mockaitis knots it 3-3 with 9:02 left Q3. La Salle and Stoga tied up pic.twitter.com/UWKIpnVPoq
— Andrew Robinson (@ADRobinson3) June 5, 2018
Much like Burnham and his defensive teammates found their trust in each other, they also trusted the offense was going to find itself in the second half. Chris Mockaitis scored back-to-back goals after LaMond, first tying the game then giving the Explorers a 4-3 lead on a fastbreak chance.
With about five minutes left in the third, an assistant coach found Brendan Meagher and told the midfielder the defense had done its job for 30 minutes and it was his turn to go get them a goal. Meagher did just that with three minutes left in the frame, scoring for a 5-3 lead and the eventual game-winner.
“It resonates with us that they’re doing their job so it’s time to do ours,” LaMond said. “We just had to keep shooting and keep playing hard. In the first half, we did a lot of one-man dodges and got stripped a couple times, I did that, Brendan did that and we weren’t playing as a team. What we needed to do was move the ball around, dodge, make a few passes and attack from the weak side, just break them down.”
Tate Kienzle got a goal back for Conestoga late in the third but that was it for the Pioneers in the second half. Joe Taylor and LaMond added fourth quarter goals as La Salle closed out the win.
Tuesday’s game was the fifth meeting between La Salle and Conestoga in the state playoffs, but the first time the meeting wasn’t in the state title game. La Salle is seeking its fifth state championship having won titles in 2004, 2008, 2009 and 2013 — the last two PIAA titles.
For the Explorers’ upperclassmen, it’s also a shot at redemption after losing the 2016 state title game.
“I was on that team, I was close with all those guys and I think our team now is very similar to them in a way,” Burnham said. “A lot of guys have the experience and we have a lot of talent.”
LA SALLE 7, CONESTOGA 4
LA SALLE 0 1 4 2 – 7
CONESTOGA 2 1 1 0 – 4
Goals-Assists: L – Ethan LaMond 2-0, Chris Mockaitis 2-0, Joe Taylor 1-1, Matt Clibanoff 1-0, Brendan Meagher 1-1; C – Nick Cost 1-1, Tate Kienzle 1-0, Kent Hjelm 1-0, Will Schnorr 1-0. Saves: L – Michael Clibanoff 9, C – Scott MacMillan 6.