By Neil Geoghegan
@NeilMGeoghegan on Twitter
WEST GOSHEN >> The top two seeds, Marple Newtown and West Chester Rustin have been on a collision course to meet in the District 1 2A Boys’ Lacrosse Final for many weeks.
And when it finally happened Wednesday, Golden Knights’ goaltender Billy Carney was seemingly ready and able to absorb nearly every blow the No. 1 Tigers were able to muster. Carney and the Rustin defense limited Marple Newtown to a single goal over the course of the final 32-plus minutes of action, on the way to a 9-4 triumph – the first district crown in program history.
“Halfway through this season, we brought the guys into our gym and asked them to look into the rafters,” Knights’ head coach Kevin Philibin recalled. “Boys’ lacrosse is the one team that doesn’t have anything up there.
“We kept talking about adding something this season, and this senior class has been really special. They’ve accomplished a lot of firsts, and they just added another.”
Now 16-5 overall and winners of seven straight, Rustin will open the PIAA Tournament on Tuesday against an opponent to be determined. It is also the Knights’ first appearance at states.
“The job is not finished yet, but a district championship sounds pretty good,” Philibin said.
“This is the first title for the program,” Carney added. “Being able to bring this back home is kind of crazy. Our gym has been empty as far as boys’ lacrosse, so being able to put a banner up means so much.
“And it’s been a long time coming. We’ve been stopped in the semifinals the last two seasons. So to finally make it, and win a championship means everything.”
A year ago, the Tigers ended Rustin’s season. Marple Newtown (16-5 overall) actually had a 17-14 edge in shots on goal on Wednesday in the clash held at West Chester East. The Tigers will now turn their attention to the PIAA Championships.
“On Wednesday last week (in a 20-5 win against rival Penncrest in the semifinals), everything fell into place for us,” said Marple Newtown head coach Kevin Merchant. “Today, things broke the other way. We will go back to the drawing board, and get back to work for states.”
As has been the case all season, the Knights were led by senior standouts like Carney, attackers Jake Jackson and Antonio Santangelo, and midfielder Marek Seaman. Carney delivered big save and after big save and finished with 13 stops. Jackson had four goals (and two assists), Santangelo chipped in three and Seaman had a pair.
“Our offense had good long possessions, and when the ball came down to my end, the defense was locked down, only allowing outside shots, which made it easy for me,” Carney said.
For Jackson — the son of former Avon Grove head coach Eric Jackson — it was the culmination of a dream six years in the making. In 2017, the Red Devils won the state crown at West Chester East’s Zimmerman Stadium.
“I’ve dreamed about this ever since my dad’s team won it all on this field when I was in sixth grade,” he said. “So to win a district title here is just so special.
“This couldn’t have happened to a better team. I love these boys with all my heart.”
Deadlocked at 3-3 midway through the second quarter, Rustin seized control by scoring four goals and holding the Tigers scoreless for more than 24 minutes. It certainly didn’t help that Marple Newtown was without star sophomore Brian Box, who is out with a staph infection.
“(Box) is a very good player, but we’ve always cultivated the ‘next-man-up theory,’” Merchant said.
“It was just two very good teams out there battling. (Rustin) showed up in the second half and were better than us today.”
Philibin added: “Marple was missing their best player, and our defense was phenomenal. Our defenders have really bought in, and we know we have one of the best goalies in the state behind them. It’s just about making sure we are communicating, getting through our rotations and allowing Billy to see the ball and make those saves.”
The Tigers got off to an impressive start with early goals by Evan Kostack and Robert Wagner. But six seconds after making it 2-0, Rustin’s Jack O’Hora found Jackson for a score, and then the two teamed up again 42 seconds later to tie it. The Knights never trailed again.
“It felt, for a few minutes, like (Marple Newtown) was going to roll us. So it was so huge for us to come back like that,” Carney acknowledged.
“We know that (Marple Newtown) is tough once they get rolling, so we knew what we had to do,” Jackson added. “We knew we couldn’t give up three.”
Seaman put the Knights in front for the first time early in the second period. And Santangelo helped put Rustin ahead 5-3 at the half by scoring a goal and assisting on another to Seaman with 39.3 on the clock.
Following a scoreless third period, Jackson notched two more goals early in the fourth to make it 7-3. And even though junior Joey Yukenevitch finally broke the scoring drought for the Tigers with 8:11 to go, Santangelo added two more insurance goals.
“I think (Rustin) was the better team today,” Merchant said. “Some breaks didn’t go our way, and I think we played a little tight. Plus (Rustin’s) goalie played good, so it’s a combination of those things that caught up to us.”
Despite making the program’s first-ever district final appearance, the Knights played with confidence and poise. And Philibin credited his team’s difficult schedule.
“We played a tough schedule,” he said. “We haven’t lost to a PIAA opponent by more than a goal, and two of those were in overtime. We are battle tested, we’ve been here before, so it was all about which team was going to handle adversity better during the game.”
It is certainly not out of the question that these two could meet again at some point deep into the PIAA Playoffs.
“We’ve had our eye on (Marple Newtown) for the entire season,” Philibin said.
“I don’t think we are looking that far ahead,” Merchant added. “We are going to face a very good team (to be determined) on Tuesday in the first round and that’s what we are turning our attention to.”
West Chester Rustin 9, Marple Newtown 4
West Chester Rustin 2 1 0 1 — 4
Marple Newtown 2 3 0 4 — 9
West Chester Rustin goals: Jackson 4, Santangelo 3, Seaman 2.
Marple Newtown goals: Kostack 2, Wagner, Yukenevitch.
Goalie saves: Carney (R) 13; Delicandro (MN) 5.