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Lacrosse no longer just Southeast PA’s domain

Manheim Township's Grayson Sallade, left, turns back La Salle's Connor Helm in the PIAA Class 3A final Saturday at West Chester East, won by Manheim, 6-4. (Mark Palczewski/For Digital First Media)

WEST GOSHEN >> The symbolism Saturday was almost too perfect. On one side of the PIAA Class 3A boys lacrosse final stood Manheim Township, the first team from District 3 to ascend to a state final. On the other was La Salle, the apotheosis of the Pennsylvania lacrosse establishment, twice a PIAA champ, six times a finalist in the decade the PIAA has overseen the sport.

If the hegemony of the east was overturned, it would take a special team from the middle of the state, which Manheim certainly was. And wouldn’t it be fitting for the biggest of them all to be the one to fall?

The storybook saga played out Saturday, Manheim capturing the crown with a 6-4 win over the Explorers. It represented the culmination in so many efforts, not just the growth of Manheim’s program but the diffusion of the sport across Pennsylvania. Manheim’s win isn’t the only statement but rather that boldest inflection point yet in a sport so long derided as the sole purview of the southeastern corner of the state.

Zach Diamond, left, and Manheim Township proved equal to the task of toppling Connor Helm and perennial power La Salle in Saturday’s PIAA Class 3A final, 6-4. It’s a seminal moment for the growing lacrosse scene beyond Southeastern PA. (Mark Palczewski/For digital First Media)

“I think it’s an important point because it shows that the sport is not just centered in one area, that it is growing and people are going out and working hard in the offseason and getting athletes that were playing other sports as well,” PIAA Executive Director Dr. Bob Lombardi said. “And they’re competing, and I think that’s a testament to the quality of games we had today.”

The trends are telling. Before this season, only one team from outside Districts 1 and 12 had made a state final: Kennard-Dale of District 3 in the 2017 Class 2A girls field. That qualification was an inevitable consequence of bracket construction, which isolates the District 1 teams to batter each other in the Eastern half, and so it was again this year that the Rams made it back.

The brackets have changed through the years, but in the Class 3A and old one-class system, eastern teams were always turfed west to feast on inferior opposition and get fast-tracked to the final. In the two-year bracket cycle for 2017-18, the boys District 1 champ and girls District 1 runner-up got the westerly — nominally easier — route.

That changed this year, thanks to Manheim Township’s boys and girls teams, which ousted Garnet Valley and Springfield, respectively, to make it three District 3 teams at East Saturday. Special as those teams are — Manheim’s girls were bested by Unionville, 11-6, Saturday — they’re not alone.

“I think it shows the growth of the game,” said long-time Strath Haven coach Jef Hewlings, whose coaching stops included six seasons in District 11 with Emmaus. “I’ve been around long enough to know that Eastern Pennsylvania was the hotbed of Pennsylvania lacrosse. I coached when there wasn’t a team out west that we could even play for a state championship, and the fact that Manheim was able to beat an established program like La Salle, it kind of says a lot about what’s happening with lacrosse in the state of Pennsylvania.”

“There’s great coaches and great lacrosse being played all throughout this state,” said Manheim boys coach Dan Lyons. “… There’s great lacrosse all over this state. It just comes down to who you are blessed with as your players and do they go all-in with one another.”

The year-to-year change is instructive. Garnet Valley’s boys narrowly survived their second-round game against Cumberland Valley before dropping the semifinal to Manheim, 15-6. A year ago, state runner-up Conestoga trounced Mount Lebanon by 10 goals in its Class 3A semifinal.

Strath Haven, the runner-up in Class 2A, was pushed to overtime by District 7 champ Mars Area in the semifinal. A year ago, state runner-up West Chester Henderson downed Mars by 11.

The same is true for the girls. Parkland eliminated District 1 fourth seed Perkiomen Valley in the first round this spring, District 11’s first win over a District 1 team in 10 tries. Before losing to Manheim, Springfield only survived Wilson by a goal.

One factor in the surge outside of Southeastern PA is the design of the state tournament, which has for years exposed western squads to states competition even if they weren’t yet able to compete. Though stakeholders in the east would grouse about three-hour drives to club a team by 15 goals or a dozen more deserving (in their estimation) teams staying home, there was a long-term calculus. The challenge for the PIAA was also unique in that the sport was still new and growing.

“When we’ve developed lacrosse, it’s a representative tournament like it is in all of our sports, and that’s a philosophy of our board,” Lombardi said. “Yeah, if you want to do a district tournament over, you might want to change it. But we don’t want to see districts redoing their tournament in our tournament. And I think you’ve seen the evolution of the sport in the last few years.”

“You want to see the sport grow,” said West Chester East athletic director Sue Cornelius, the District 1 Chairperson who sits on the PIAA’s lacrosse steering committee. “It just doesn’t grow equally because when you’re starting out, it takes a couple of years before you can really compete. And I think that’s what we’re starting to see with District 3 is the competitiveness coming out.”

The growth is also more organic. Hewlings can trace the phylogeny of most central PA programs: Who started where in Districts 1 and 12, then moved out to Lancaster or Harrisburg or Hershey to colonize a new node in the network. Lyons, who played at Delaware powerhouse Salesianum and coached in New Jersey, fits the bill. But homegrown coaching talent is emerging, and players and their parents are shelling out the money and time to travel with premier club teams. Hence how arguably the two most significant college prospects Saturday, Virginia-bound Grayson Sallade and North Carolina signee Caton Johnson, were Blue Streaks.

While Manheim downplayed the “us against the world” philosophy, Central PA lacrosse possesses a unique camaraderie absent in the more established East.

“We all pull for one another,” Lyons said. “Our district pulls for one another. Teams that we beat in the postseason, when we hit the state tournament, we’re all helping one another with anything that we know about who we’re playing and trying to make each other better, and that’s great for our area.”

Hewlings understands the process that Lyons completed. Hewlings inherited an 8-10 program at Strath Haven four years ago and just graduated a class of seniors that won 61 games, making a state semifinal and a final. The challenge, Hewlings said, is making a team that’s knocking on the door of a state title believe they can crash through it.

Lyons’ team has done that. And they have the trophy to prove it.

“We knew we were the underdog; we rode that,” Manheim goalie Johnson said. “But we weren’t each other’s underdog. We believed in each other. We believed we could come out here and become state champions.”

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