La Salle soccer making most of opportunity to play in 2020

SPRINGFIELD >> As Hayden Grosso made a move past a defender in front of goal and lined up a shot, the three La Salle subs waiting to enter the game at midfield started to celebrate.

A few seconds later, Grosso had slipped in the Explorers’ fifth goal of the day and the rest of the bench joined the midfield subs in celebration. After a summer of uncertainty left La Salle without a league schedule and hunting any match it could get, there’s plenty of reason for the Explorers to celebrate every good moment they create this fall.

Playing for the first time in a week, La Salle bounced back from its first setback of the season with a 5-0 win over visiting Holy Ghost Prep on Saturday afternoon.

“Credit to Ghost, they came out ready to play but we just worked hard,” La Salle midfielder Sean Jennings said. “I think the result showed that.”

La Salle, the 2019 PCL champion and a PIAA 4A semifinalist last year, saw its schedule fall apart in July and August as local leagues like the SOL and PAC went to conference-only schedules and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s halt on athletics left 10 of the 13 PCL teams out of action. To make up for that, the Explorers (3-1) joined with the other PCL teams not under the AoP’s directive and still playing in Devon Prep and St. Joe’s Prep, along with HGP, to form an independent league while adding any other opponents they could.

It’s created an unusual set of circumstances for the program. Instead of being right in the heart of PCL play with two league matches per week, the Explorers are playing once a week and putting in a lot of time on the practice fields.

“It starts with staying focused in practice,” La Salle forward Seth Michalak, who scored twice Saturday, said. “We come ready every practice and wanting to get better and I think that shows on the field.”

La Salle’s Seth Michalak advances the ball against Holy Ghost Prep.

La Salle graduated just five seniors, three of them starters, from last year, so this fall’s group of Explorers was eager to take whatever opportunity they had to play a season together. Coach Tom McCaffery cited the group’s intense competitiveness for pushing through the long, grinding practice sessions between matches so far.

The junior varsity and freshman programs have pitched in too, with the JV team jumping in to scrimmage the varsity group regularly to stay game sharp and the teams sharing some practice sessions to mix things up. With all the work that’s gone on behind the scenes and the knowledge the next day isn’t a given this fall, they find joy in each other’s success.

“They’re familiar with each other and that’s sometimes a good thing and sometimes makes it interesting at training when they get a little too comfortable,” McCaffery said. “They work well together, they’re definitely fired up and the reactions you see from the multitude of scorers we got from the three shifts we put out there today are genuine. It’s not a joke, it’s not poking fun at someone, it’s a genuine reaction to watching their teammates and classmates do well.”

That success is bred from the team’s brand of play, one that started last October and fueled the Explorers run to the PCL title and state semis. A technically talented team with a solid defensive group, La Salle was able to move the ball well on Saturday, got the Firebirds pressed back defensively and started to open things up.

Jennings set up the opening goal when he slipped a short pass to Michalak, who took a touch to set up his left foot and powered a ball to the far post midway through the opening half. Edward Barton made it 2-0 a minute later when he took a smart pass from James Barton in alone and slipped it past the keeper.

For the players on the field, it’s important to have and celebrate that success for their teammates on the bench. La Salle had a handful of starters and seniors out on Saturday, but they were as loud as anyone else any time the ball found a home in the net.

“We have a great brotherhood here,” Jennings said. “Energy is one of our major things, when the bench brings energy, the players on the field have a lot of energy and it showed on the field today.”

Michalak added his second less than a minute after halftime ended, latching on to a through ball from Lucho Narcisi and striking a terrific chip shot on the run for the finish.

Jennings added a goal to his earlier helper later in the second half, staying with the play after his initial shot off Taj Weems’ pass was saved only to be half-cleared back to him for a second opportunity. Grosso’s determination to push through the tackle and finish came three minutes later, not only securing the win but allowing the Explorers to get their reserve players some extended minutes.

“It’s a sign of the talent that comes through La Salle,” Michalak said. “It’s a great school for athletics but also a great school for academics and everybody here just works so hard and wants to get better. Nobody wants to be sitting, we all want to be in the game and that’s what motivates us every day.”

The AoP reversed its decision last month, allowing the other PCL schools to begin training and playing matches if they chose to do so. With the PIAA setting up state playoff brackets, it means La Salle will have to earn its way into the abbreviated postseason but that’s fine with the Explorers.

La Salle will face Roman Catholic on Oct. 28 and host the Prep on Oct. 31, with Prep and Roman also facing each other and the team with the most points from that round-robin series will represent District 12 in the 4A bracket. District 11 opted out of the state playoffs, meaning the District 12 rep will automatically secure a state semifinal berth across from the District 1 champion.

That also opened the door for La Salle to add more matches and McCaffery said the Explorers will face Archbishop Wood on Nov. 2 and have plans in the works to face a few other PCL sides and some District I opponents with teams able to schedule up until Thanksgiving.

Michalak stressed the players are grateful for the chance they’ve had to play and the work the coaches have done to keep finding more matches while Jennings added their goal is to win a state title and the entire is willing to do what it takes to get there.

“In years past, when you get to October, you start thinking about the playoffs and how this could be your last 80 minutes, well that really takes on a different, bigger meaning this year,” McCaffery said. “Each game could be your last 80 minutes, each practice could be your last with these guys if you’re a senior. We really try to keep that mentality, but they’re loose about it because they follow the protocols, do all the right things and are buying into what the school is doing and what the PIAA is doing to keep them safe and keep them playing.

“They trust we’re going to be able to keep grinding at this and they’re just happy to be together. The mentality of ‘if it’s your last day, make it your best’ has really come through this year.”

LA SALLE 2 3 – 5
Goals: L – Seth Michalak (Sean Jennings), Edward Donovan (James Barton), Michalak (Lucho Narisi), Jennings, Hayden Grosso.

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