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Shanahan poised to capture first-ever state crown in boys’ lacrosse

DOWNINGTOWN – Jon Heisman is a longtime health and physical education teacher at West Chester East, and he drives past Zimmerman Stadium on his way to and from work all the time. On Saturday, it will be the site for, perhaps, the biggest contest of his coaching career.

Heisman moonlights as the head boys’ lacrosse coach at Bishop Shanahan. At 4:30 p.m., his Eagles will take on Strath Haven for the PIAA 2A State Championship.

“I’ve been at East for 33 years,” Heisman said. “We know the field. I was the head coach there for six years. Our kids are familiar, but it really doesn’t matter.

“We went out and played two hours away at Cumberland Valley on Tuesday in the semis, so we will show up wherever we have to play. We will be ready.”

During his 29 seasons as a head coach at three schools, Heisman has guided a bunch of excellent players and has experienced a lot of success. In fact, Heisman won a PSLA state crown in 1992 as the head coach at Springfield (Delco), and was an assistant when West Chester East did it in 1988.

But he’s never had a deeper, more talented roster than he has right now.

“It’s been a roller coaster ride of excellence from this team,” he said. “They haven’t faltered at any point, and they are mature no matter what happens. It’s been a group that can self-motivate themselves.

“They have been a coach’s dream, to tell you the truth.”

The Eagles have strength at all levels. Attacker Kyle Gucwa, midfielder Gabe Goforth and defender Tom Ford are all first team all-leaguers, and all three have signed to play at the Division I level in college. And then you add to the mix All-Ches-Mont picks Connor Whalen (long-stick midfielder), Tyler Kingsburg (face off specialist) and Nic Pezone (goaltender), and Shanahan is loaded.

In 22 contests this spring, the Eagles only blemish came on the road against Avon Grove, the defending 3A state champs. And the score was 3-3 midway through the fourth quarter. Since then, Shanahan (21-1 overall) has reeled off 18 wins in a row.

“This has been coming for the last two or three years,” Heisman said. “We have a group of upperclassmen who that have played early in their (high school) careers together and have been through a lot. It’s a tight-knit group.

“Our strength is with our leadership, with guys who have been through the wars. It’s just been one of those years.”

With Maryland recruits like Goforth and Whalen, and Manhattan-bound Gucwa, the Eagles are skilled and explosive. They are averaging 16 goals per contest in the PIAA Tournament.

But Shanahan is built on defense. The squad allows an average of 3.6 goals against and has held 10 opponents to three or fewer goals this season.

“Our defense has carried the torch,” Heisman explained. “The three defensive guys are seniors (Ford, Tristan Lynch and Zane Monroe), and our goalie has been incredible. But it’s a total team defensive package.

“It’s been our bread and butter, and we’ve beat some good teams by a lot of goals.”

The title game is a postseason rematch. The Eagles topped Strath Haven 9-6 in the District 1 semifinals on May 22 in a match held at Shanahan.

“It was a dogfight,” Heisman acknowledged. “It could have gone either way, so we know we will have our hands full. We just need to make sure our kids stay even keeled and even tempered. We’re hoping it all comes together on Saturday for us.”

Since the first meeting, the Panthers have gone 4-0, including a pair of recent nail-biters: a 12-9 triumph over arch-rival Springfield in the quarterfinals, and a wild 12-11 overtime marathon over Mars in the semis.   

“Strath Haven is definitely dangerous,” Heisman warned. “They pressure you all over the place and they are very athletic. They have one of the best midfielders in the state in Jeff Conner. He’s going to Virginia. He can win games on his own.”

The Bishop Shanahan program has never ventured this deep into the state playoffs, but the Eagles have been hardened over the years competing regularly against bigger schools prior to the PIAA splitting into two classes (3A and 2A) in 2017.

“We’ve been mighty close,” Heisman pointed out. “If you look back, we’ve been through some wars before we split into 2A and 3A. We lost first round games to La Salle and St. Joe’s Prep and both of those ended up going all the way to the finals.

“We’ve had the talent and we’ve had the kids, so to finally get to this point it’s been magic. We are hoping we have the right formula this year.”

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