NETHER PROVIDENCE >> It’s hard to fathom now, but there was a time when Jeff Conner stood on the periphery of the national lacrosse consciousness.
In an ecosystem where elementary school kids are eyed by ranking services and trailed by coaches, Conner was a relatively late bloomer. It wasn’t for late adoption — he’d started playing in kindergarten and stuck with it.
But Conner found himself at the end of his freshman year, nervously watching members of the Class of 2018 pledge their allegiances to colleges and wondering if he’d get the chance he desired.
“That may have played a little part in the decision I made to go to St. Joe’s because I was nervous that nothing else would come around,” Conner said this week. “But deep down, you’ve just got to trust the process, and down the road you get where you want to go.”
His process would soon blossom. The commitment to Saint Joseph’s didn’t withstand the mushroom cloud of Conner’s explosion as a nationally ranked player. And 400 points, a run to a PIAA final and the reestablishment of the Strath Haven program later, the midfielder can head to the University of Virginia as not just a top prospect but one of the most decorated players in Delco history.
He also gets the title of Daily Times Boys Lacrosse Player of the Year.
Conner is joined on the first team by teammate Ryan Morris; the Haverford School trio of TJ Malone, Ryan Niggeman and Gavin Burke; Springfield’s Kyle Long and Patrick Clemens; Garnet Valley’s Jason Rose and Jake Morin; Radnor’s Mike McShea and Connor Pierce; and Archbishop Carroll’s Adam Ritter.
Long and Conner are three-time honorees. Malone and Clemens land on the team for the second time. The Class of 2018 dominates with eight of 12 spots. Burke, Clemens and Niggeman are juniors, while Morin is the only sophomore.
The All-Delco team is selected in consultation with area coaches.
The parallels between three of the multi-year honorees and Player of the Year candidates are instructive. On one hand is Long, who committed to the University of Maryland after his freshman year. On the other is Malone, who needed a stellar junior season to land a commitment to Amherst; after an even better senior campaign, he jumped at Division I interest from Penn State.
Somewhere in the middle is Conner. Worried that he’d miss the Division I boat, he accepted an offer from St. Joe’s, which lasted into the middle of his junior year, when Virginia put him on its list. He’ll follow a long line of Delco middies to Charlottesville, joining 2018 ACC Freshman of the Year Matt Moore, a four-time All-Delco from Garnet Valley, and All-American Dox Aitken, the 2016 Daily Times POY from Haverford School.
But the process of cracking the national rankings took patience. And it wasn’t always the metric by which Conner gauged his success.
“It doesn’t matter much to me,” Conner said. “I don’t really care what I am ranked right now, whether it’s top 600 or top 20, where I am. When I wasn’t ranked, I guess it was motivation to work harder and try to get where I want to be. Even now, I’m not where I want to be. I want to push myself to being the best lacrosse player that I can be.”
What mattered were the numbers he put up for the Panthers and how that vaulted the program into the upper echelon of Pennsylvania. As a sophomore, Conner notched 100 points (67 goals, 33 assists) to fuel an unlikely run to the PIAA semifinals, losing to eventual champ Springfield. He rocketed past those marks as a junior with 68 goals and 63 assists in a campaign that culminated in the PIAA quarters.
Those were mere appetizers to what Conner unleashed in his senior campaign. After his basketball season was cut short in December by a fractured wrist, he showed no ill-effects on the lacrosse field, propelling the Panthers to the final of the PIAA Class 2A tournament. He manhandled defenses to the tune of 96 goals, 59 assists and 155 points. The goals and points tallies are believed to be Delco records.
For his career, Conner finished with a stratospheric 408 points.
Conner credits his ascent to the increased pressure he felt, primarily from within the Panthers’ familial ranks. He grew accustomed to carrying the target of a national ranking, but more salient was what he meant to the Panthers.
“It was definitely more comfort, coach (Jef) Hewlings telling me that, ‘if this team is going to go anywhere, I need you to step up,’” Conner said. “A lot of people were counting on me, and the support was great. I wouldn’t have as many points as I did if I didn’t have people finishing the ball and passing me the ball the way they did for the last four years.”
The team concept fueled Conner. As ruthless as he could be punishing an isolated defender, Strath Haven excelled when the offense involved multiple players. This year, that required getting new contributors quickly up to speed. Nicky Palermo went from 11 goals in 2017 to 27. Ethan Belville, who didn’t record a varsity point in 2017, scored 33 goals. Liam Carney (64 points) bloomed from a fourth option to a secondary scorer, while Ibo Pio became a force off the dodge in midfield.
Conner’s legacy wasn’t in casting a superstar shadow that stunted the growth of those around him. Instead, he brought out the best in teammates. And in doing so, he’s helped irrevocably alter the expectations at a program that hovered below .500 in his freshman season.
“That was our goal as a class. We wanted to leave our mark on the program,” Conner said. “We could tell, freshman year, going in and losing first round of playoffs, that was supposed to happen. Strath Haven lacrosse wasn’t there. We weren’t supposed to do anything big. But now, if we’re not making it to the state playoffs, then it’s a down year.”