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[tps_title]La Salle College Explorers [/tps_title]

La Salle quarterback Jack Machita is returning from injury to lead the Explorers in 2019. Gene Walsh — Digital First Media

Explorers aiming for return to top of PCL

WYNDMOOR >> Dillon Trainer wasn’t going to let practice end with the offense claiming another win.

The La Salle senior linebacker came out flying on the second drive of a two-minute drill as the Explorers defense got two stops in a row after allowing a touchdown on the opening rep of the exercise. It was a lively end to the evening practice, with the offense and defense on opposite sides of the field and really getting into it.

After a subpar 2018 season, it’s that type of energy the Explorers are banking on to propel them to better things this fall. For La Salle, it’s been too long without any trophies and this could be the year to change it.

“A big difference we have this year is guys genuinely want to be out here and it’s not as much ‘we have to go to football today’ but more a ‘we get to go to football today’,” Trainer, a Delaware recruit, said. “That makes a huge difference, especially in the early stages of a forming a season, making sure you have the right guys and figuring the out the guys who are committed against the guys who are just involved and seeing who is happy to get better and amp things up as soon as they step on the field.”

La Salle went 5-6 last season, hamstrung by a 1-4 start and saw its season again end at the hands of nemesis St. Joe’s Prep in the PCL 6A championship game. The schedule didn’t get any easier, with La Salle opening against Imhotep Charter and its annual matchup with North Penn set for Week 2 before nonleague games against Malvern Prep and the Haverford School lead into the PCL.

Getting off to a better start will be imperative to the team’s mental make-up, but its real tests will come in league play. The Explorers haven’t beaten the Prep since 2015’s PCL final, going 0-6 against their archrival the past three seasons. On top of that, La Salle hasn’t beaten Archbishop Wood since 2014.

Last season didn’t go as planned in terms of win-loss record or the postseason, but it did set the foundation for a solid returning core this fall.

“It’s been very competitive, offense and defense have been going at it every day,” senior linebacker Tyson Goldstein said. “Defense has been kicking the offense’s butt sometimes but the offense turns around and kicks our butt. We’re focused on competing against each other, our motto this year is ‘be back on top’ so we’re trying to make sure everyone here is ready for that.”

The Explorers’ defense has a number of key cogs back in the fold, headlined by the linebacker group. Trainer, Goldstein, senior Jalen DeVose and sophomore Abdul Carter all figure to see significant action in the linebacker rotation and there are several other players vying for snaps to complement the unit.

La Salle has some nice pieces back in the secondary with senior Griffin Zobel and senior TJ Meachum seeing plenty of time last year.

Senior Ryan Savage returns off a strong junior season at defensive end and he’s getting plenty of help from juniors Tim Barrett and Paul Jennings early in camp. Coach John Steinmetz feels his defense will be strong up front, which in turn should make things easier for the guys behind them.

“It’s a big stage out there, especially playing for La Salle with all the history we have,” Savage said. “Like Tyson said, the motto is get back on top because, let’s face it, we’ve been falling off a little bit and we don’t have that same status. Coming off a 5-6 season, we’re all hungry and trying to prove something.”

For senior quarterback Jack Machita, this fall is a new start. The starter last season, Machita didn’t even get to finish two games before an injury sidelined him for the remainder of the campaign. On top of sharing his teammates’ motivation, the quarterback is eager to really show what he can do.

Machita will line up behind an offensive line that returns three players with starting experience and has a number of players looking capable to rotate in and contribute. He also has plenty of weapons to either throw to or hand the ball off to.

Sophomore Sam Brown broke on the scene last year when his first high school touch went 68 yards for a touchdown. He’ll headline the backfield group but is just as capable of lining up as a receiver and should cause headaches for every opponent the Explorers face this fall.

DeVose and Brad Vespe will spell Brown or lineup in the backfield when the sophomore splits out wide to give La Salle other looks carrying the ball. Meachum and Carter will be looked at to make plays on the perimeter and Steinmetz said there are plenty of other players fighting for snaps at receiver and the backfield spots.

“We’re trying to go fast and we’re trying to take advantage of the guys we have,” Machita said. “I’m liking everything about it. Sam Brown is a big weapon for us, we have a big o-line, that’s an advantage and we have some dogs out there.”

There’s a confidence within the Explorers as well. For this year’s senior class, the ups and downs of last year left a major impression on them and those lessons are also serving to fuel their drive to return to prominence this fall.

“This might sound weird but I think we feared failure and success at the same time,” Trainer said. “Our class, we haven’t really seen true success from the beginning to end of a season so when we would have these glimpses of success, it’d be like ‘what do we do now?’ We were so scared of losing games and messing up that we would let games get away because we didn’t know how to handle prosperity but we also feared losing focus and losing ourselves in losing games.”

Savage said the players have gotten a good feel for how to push each other on the field but leave all of that between the lines. The senior didn’t hide the fact that the Explorers are trying to one-up each other every chance they get, but once the last whistle ends practice, it doesn’t take the walk up the hill to the locker room with them.

“We’ve been working very hard, we’ve been pushing each other,” Goldstein said. “Just speaking from a defensive aspect, we’re very sharp with the mental side of the game and we’re very together. This is the closest I’ve seen La Salle in my years here.”