MARPLE >> A defensive game fittingly turned on a defensive play, but one that came from an unlikely source.
Inside two minutes to play in the first half of Tuesday’s PIAA 3A first round boys lacrosse playoff game, La Salle found itself deadlocked with Avon Grove. The Devils had just forced a stop but as they attempted to clear the ball, Explorers midfielder Danny Mallee pressured it and forced a hurried pass.
Shane Osborne picked it off, had an open run to the cage and managed to slip one by AG’s superb goalie Zach Hanway for a momentum-turning goal.
Defense won the day as the Explorers topped Avon Grove 5-2 at Cardinal O’Hara, advancing to Saturday’s quarterfinal.
“That was huge,” Osborne, who scored two first-half goals, said. “It was kind of just a hard ride. Our coach has been getting on us to dig in and get on it as hard as we can. We’re just trying to live up to what he’s telling us and it worked out well.”
A run-and-gun shootout was low on the list of likely outcomes anyway, but the first 12 minutes did everything needed to quell any remaining doubts. Both defenses were on top of their game, and the first frame ended with a 0-0 tie.
Hanway showed he wasn’t going to get bested easily and had four saves at the end of the frame. The senior finished the day with a staggering 18 saves in a performance that earned a tip of the cap from Osborne.
It was also a big reason why the Devils never lost confidence and kept within striking distance all game.
“He’s been like that all season long and I don’t think he got some of the recognition he deserved but today he certainly showed that he’s one of the top goalies we’ve ever had,” Avon Grove coach Eric Jackson said. “The defense plays better, when you know you have Zach behind you, you can be a lot more confident.”
La Salle senior Christian Suter didn’t have the same gaudy save total, but all of his four stops were pivotal. He made a sliding denial on a mostly-open cage shot after an Explorers backfield turnover in the first quarter and stuffed a point-blank shot with six minutes to go and La Salle up just 4-1.
The defense in front of him was lights-out as well. Poles Kurt Wessner, Ben Rivera, Brett Mallee, Griffin Zobel and Chase Rondeau and short-stick midfielders Shane Cassel and Chris Mockaitis effectively quieted the Devils offensively.
“Every game we try to set ourselves goals, something we think we can reach and we did well today,” Wessner, who forced a pair of turnovers, said. “We communicated really well, which is helpful on defense and we were able to help each other out constantly. We know each other’s matchups, we know our preferences and it comes from a lot of practice together.”
Goals were going to be at a premium both ways, so the first tally would be pivotal. With Hanway stonewalling the Explorers early, Osborne said they had to adjust the plane of their shots and try to be more dynamic.
Finally, La Salle broke through when Mark Huntley found Osborne for the game’s first score with 7:30 left in the second quarter.
“It was a long-possession game, that’s just how it was going and it’s still 0-0 so we were lucky to break the ice,” Osborne said. “That really helped us out and was a big momentum thing.”
Avon Grove’s Zach Augustine tied it on a falling shot with 5:40 to go and the score stayed there until Danny Mallee and Osborne forced their defensive game-changer. Wessner said the defense loves when the mids and attack can force turnovers and he feels the front six can be aggressive like that because they know the defense will have their back if the opponent does clear the ball.
“We just know each other and that truly helps with defense,” Wessner said. “We know each other’s matchups, not just our own. We’re in spots to help each other constantly, it’s not an individual thing for us at all.”
Not to be lost in La Salle’s effort was the work of faceoff man John Giuliani. The senior went 9-for-11 on the X, a huge factor in a game where every possession was crucial.
Giuliani went early on the game’s opening faceoff, but he figured out if he was true to the whistle, he had a shot a very productive day. While he came up with the ball most of those nine times, his wingers were just as important in La Salle controlling the faceoff margin.
“Our wings dominated all over, we were getting it within the first five yards and that’s what we work on every day,” Giuliani said. “Our whole defensive line was getting open for me if I needed an outlet, same with the attack. It was really a 10-man effort on every faceoff.”
Zach Coar scored a pair of goals in the third quarter, pushing the La Salle advantage to 4-1. The defense held serve until Carson Peck pulled a score back for the Devils with 2:01 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Avon Grove loses some key seniors like Augustine, Peck and Hanway but Jackson noted they have a nice core returning next year. For a lot of the Devils, this was their first real playoff experience and it was the type of ending that can serve as a motivator.
“We have a lot of things to clean up when you look at this game and hopefully the returning guys draw from that,” Jackson said. “They grew as a team throughout the season, which was great to see but to get over that hump for next year, we have to clean some things up.”
With Avon Grove having just cut the lead to two, Giuliani matched up on the X for a pivotal faceoff and came up with the ball in his stick. It led to Mockaitis bouncing a long shot in for the final margin.
“We pride ourselves on our work ethic and fight on ground balls, if we can win the ground balls then we can win the game,” Giuliani said. “After the first one, I knew I had him on the whistle so I just had to stay with it the whole time.”
La Salle moves to face the winner of Manheim Township, the team that beat the Explorers in the state final last year, or Springfield-Delco. Osborne said the coaching staff warned the whole team Saturday’s quarterfinal could play out just like Tuesday in a tough, low-scoring game.
That’s the team’s focus now as La Salle tries to get to the final week of the season.
“There are still things we have to improve on,” Wessner said. “Every game is definitely a Super Bowl at this point, there’s no easy matchup when it comes to the state tournament.”
LA SALLE 5, AVON GROVE 2
LA SALLE 0 2 2 1 – 5
AVON GROVE 0 1 0 1 – 2
Goals-Assists: L – Shane Osborne 2-0, Zach Coar 2-0, Chirs Mockaitis 1-0, Mark Huntley 0-1, Robert Foster 0-1; AG – Zach Augustine 1-0, Carson Peck 1-0. Saves: L – Christian Suter 4, AG – Zach Hanway 18.