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Long answers coach’s plea with game-winner for Springfield

LOWER MERION >> Kyle Long ended the first quarter Saturday at Harriton High School sitting dejectedly on the bench, water bottle in hand and an animated tirade from coach Tom Lemieux ringing in his ears.

Three quarters later, with the game on his stick, Long made sure the mood on the bench was decidedly more jubilant.

Springfield's Mike Gerzabek reacts after one of his three first-half goals in a 7-6 Cougars win over Avon Grove in the PIAA quarterfinals Saturday. (Digital First Media/Anne Neborak)

Springfield’s Mike Gerzabek reacts after one of his three first-half goals in a 7-6 Cougars win over Avon Grove in the PIAA quarterfinals Saturday. (Digital First Media/Anne Neborak)

Long supplied a goal and two helpers, including the game-winner with 41 seconds left, to stem the tide of a feverish Avon Grove comeback and help the Cougars knock off the District One runner-up, 7-6, in the PIAA quarterfinals.

Springfield (18-7), the third seed from District One, advances to Tuesday’s semifinal to meet Central League rival Strath Haven in a repeat of the district third-place game.

Long rode a roller coaster of emotions Saturday, with one too many forced passes leading to turnovers and a vehement lecture from Lemieux late in the first quarter.

“Me and coach Lemieux, sometimes we get after it a little bit,” the sophomore said. “I think it’s good for both of us at times. I wish I came out and played a little better at the start, but he knows that he’s trusting me to get it done in the end, and that’s what we do usually.”

The reprimand helped Long shake the cobwebs from a sluggish start, though the Cougars fared fine without him. They led 3-1 after a quarter when Nick Martin caused a turnover and fed Joe DeBernardi for a rip with nine seconds left on a possession where Long was confined to spectator. Springfield held a 4-2 edge at half without Long finding the score sheet, thanks to a hat trick by Mike Gerzabek, who picked up the slack one lightning quick shot at a time.

“It’s not a sense of stepping up,” the senior attackman said. “It’s that everyone has to play hard throughout the game, every single second. If one person is slacking, you’ve got to pick him back up. We picked Kyle back up, and he came up big for us at the end.”

When Long roused from his slumber, Avon Grove (19-3) was in trouble. He fed Mike Vent twice in the third quarter, once man-up, to stretch the cushion to 6-2.

The suffocating Springfield defense appeared to have Avon Grove subdued, until Beau Kush showed up. Muted for three quarters, the senior scored three goals in two minutes in the fourth, all on the same move, taking a behind-the-cage screen, sneaking to goalie James Spence’s right and rifling a shot under the bar.

Springfield's Zac Methlie fends off the defense of Avon Grove's Bryce DeMuth Saturday. (Digital First Media/Anne Neborak)

Springfield’s Zac Methlie fends off the defense of Avon Grove’s Bryce DeMuth Saturday. (Digital First Media/Anne Neborak)

When Kush finished his hat trick with 1:24 left, the game was tied at 6 and the momentum was squarely on the side of the Red Devils, propagated by Nate Hammond’s 12-for-16 day at the X.

But Zac Methlie tied him up on the ensuing draw, hacking at his stick and corralling the loose ball. With 50 seconds left, Springfield executed the first read in its progression: A dodge from Long from the top of the key to assess his options. If the chance was there, Long knew Lemieux wanted him to take it. If not, time remained to probe for an alternative.

When his marker afforded too much space, Long planted a shot low on goalie Andrew Spencer that lodged inside the post for what proved to be the game-winner.

“It was one of those where I had gone right all game, and (the defender) really was letting me go to my left,” Long said. “I was OK with that, and I just went. I had enough separation, about seven yards, and I just pulled it. …

“It definitely was a little bit of a risky shot, because they could come down and score right away from a save, but it was full confidence to get it done.”

Hammond won the final draw and Avon Grove rifled two chances near James Spence’s cage, but Kush and Bryce Reid, who was held without a point, misfired, cueing the celebrations.

Kush’s late outburst marred an otherwise magisterial performance by the Cougars’ defense. They caused turnovers aplenty and indulged the Red Devils’ penchant for long shots that Spence gobbled up. Doug Jones and Zach Augustine had a goal and an assist each, Jones’ tally with 12 seconds left in the third winnowing the deficit to 6-3.

But Spence appeared to sound the death knell when he somehow got across and denied a golden, point-blank chance by Brendan Harman — set up by Reid — with 9:10 to play.

“It’s unbelievable,” defender Pat Smyth said of Spence. “It’s so great to play in front of the best goalie in the state.”

That’s when Kush, the former University of North Carolina commit, stepped up, using the pick to switch to a short-stick mid and fire past Spence three times in quick succession. By the final possession, though, the adaptive Springfield defense, led by Methlie and Vent, reacted quickly enough to choke off Kush.

“Everybody just needed to stay calm,” Smyth said. “I know it’s easy to freak out like that, especially the weight of the game. I think we just needed to bring it in, talk as a group. We understood what they were doing … and just do what we did all week (preparing).”

That’s what it took from Long, too, who emerged better off for his cooling-down period when it mattered most.

“It’s definitely not a plan, I would say that,” he said. “Sometimes we come out hot. Sometimes we don’t. … And sometimes we force it, but by the end of the game, some of them get through and we’re going to get goals in the end.”

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