Conestoga cruises past Haverford in districts

TREDYFFRIN — Boasting a significantly deeper roster on a day in which temperatures hovered into the high 80s, the Conestoga boys lacrosse team’s plan was fairly simple.

Run, run, and run some more.

The Pioneers pushed the tempo at every opportunity, exploiting their speed in transition and creating favorable matchups up and down the field to surge past No. 23 Haverford High School, 13-6, in the first round of the District 1 playoffs on a scorching afternoon at Teamer Field. Conestoga, the No. 10 seed, kicked into high gear after a tight first 15 minutes, dominating the Fords for the second time this season and setting up a showdown at No. 7 Upper Dublin in Thursday’s second round.

“We thought we were the deeper team, and you figure with it being 86 degrees that if we push the tempo and keep guys coming in and out that it would wear them down,’ said first-year Conestoga coach Brody Bush. “I think it started to in the second half.’

Perhaps earlier. When Haverford (8-10) senior Mark Edler caught a full-field pass from goalie Noah Melfe, handling it on a bounce and firing past Pioneers netminder John Roulston, the hosts found themselves locked in a 2-2 stalemate at the 9:17 mark of the second quarter. After that, Conestoga (10-9) left its Central League counterpart straining to keep up.

Starting with senior attack Greg Taicher’s first goal, a transition tally facilitated by a big hit from Virginia-bound defenseman Jack Reilly, the Pioneers took command. They scored the next six goals spanning halftime, part of a 10-1 stretch that allowed Bush to deploy most of his 38-man roster against the tiring Fords, who dressed just 24 players.

Steven Hildebrand fired home the second of his three goals to stretch the lead and Greg Taicher took it from there, setting up fellow senior Chris Brady at the 4:40 mark and directing a leaping left-handed laser to the upper left corner of the net at 3:33, handing the Pioneers a 6-2 halftime advantage.

Conestoga continued to dictate the pace after intermission. Sophomore attack Henry Berg deposited a man-down goal just under two minutes into the third period, and senior Quinn Bridge connected with cutting classmate Jace Kienzle for an easy finish, making it 8-2 with 4:23 remaining in the frame. Fords sophomore Luke McCallion briefly interrupted the parade, scoring quickly off the draw to end a 17-minute scoring drought, but the Pioneers went right back to work.

Hildebrand scored through traffic in the final minute of the quarter before Lafayette-bound senior Sam Friedman scooped up a ground ball, raced coast to coast and finished a 5-on-3 fast break by himself with 9:50 to play. Senior long-stick defenseman Dylan Sidoriak even got in on the action, burning Melfe out of his net 27 seconds later, and sophomore Tommy Sopko added to the Fords’ misery, collecting a pass from Ryan Dutot for an easy fake and finish in transition.

“We run a lot of guys with a 40-man team, and we have attackmen who can finish, so pushing is big for us,’ said Jack Reilly. “Especially when you have long poles who can get up and down the field.’

Greg Taicher scored three goals and added two assists, one of them to cousin Luke that set up the opening tally with 2:28 left in the first quarter. Hildebrand matched him with a hat-trick of his own, the first of those scores coming with two seconds remaining in the first after a scramble at midfield.

Backed by Roulston (six saves) and Jack Green (three), Conestoga stymied the Haverford offense. The Fords came up empty on five extra-man opportunities, including a 90-second non-releasable penalty during which they were unable to get a shot off and watched Berg score on the other end. Reilly (six ground balls) and company forced eight failed clears and continually jumpstarted the Pioneers’ transition offense with pinpoint passes up the field.

“When we get to the man-down, which can be a problem for us because we tend to take a lot of penalties, we’ve been locking down on the shooter that we think is a threat,’ Reilly said. “Today that was (Fords sophomore Nick Dilorio). We shut him off. When we’re all packed in and one of their best shooters is taken out of it, we force them to take outside shots and we trust our goalies to handle them.’

Behind McCallion (10 ground balls), Haverford registered a 13-10 advantage in the faceoff circle. But Conestoga never let the Fords get comfortable.

“We started a little bit slow, but we settled down and ran our sets,’ Bush said. “The guys really played well; they were aggressive. I was proud of them, especially the seniors.’

Despite a record just one game over .500, the Pioneers are nevertheless a bonafide contender in these district playoffs. Eleven of the 12 schools in the Central League are in the postseason (including three of the top four seeds), and Conestoga also faced No. 9 Central Bucks East, No. 13 Downingtown East, and No. 14 Owen J. Roberts in addition to meetings with unbeaten Inter-Ac powerhouse The Haverford School and La Salle. That’s not to mention a battle with their next opponent, seventh-seeded Upper Dublin, won 6-4 by the Cardinals (18-1) just 11 days ago. The Pioneers have played the most difficult schedule in the PIAA East Region, according to LaxPower.

“We’ve seen everything, so nothing is going to shock us in the playoffs,’ Bush said. “That’s why we’ve scheduled everyone as hard as we’ve had.’

“It prepares us for the games where it’s a real challenge,’ Reilly added. “Garnet Valley is the number one seed, and we took them to overtime. We had a bunch of games like that that show we can play with any team.’

For a program that reached every PIAA championship game from 2009 to 2013, winning three straight titles (2010-12) during that stretch, last year’s district second-round exit at the hands of Garnet Valley must have come as a shock. But Reilly and the Pioneers, who boast seven Division I recruits, have used it as a learning experience in their quest to restore that recent glory.

“Our main goal is to be better than last year, and I think if we win this next game it will show that improvement,’ Reilly said. “Obviously our goal is to get to states, but we can’t look past the district games because we didn’t make it there last year.’

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