WEST GOSHEN — Predictability is hard to come by in high school sports. Players change, teams change, identity isn’t quite so easily bequeathed to the next generation as a locker room key.
But as immutable a law as you can find, each spring, is this: Underestimate Springfield lacrosse at your own peril.
Radnor might not exactly have been guilty of that Wednesday in the District 1 Class 3A final, but if intensity counted on the scoreboard, then Springfield had the edge there, too, on the way to a 10-8 win and a district title. In the process, the Cougars stopped their Central League rival’s bid for a second straight Central-district-state triple title, something unprecedented in the last decade before the Raptors pulled it off last year, dead in its tracks.
The seeds didn’t offer much – Springfield was No. 2, Radnor No. 1. The history was scant, the teams having met in April for a 6-5 overtime win by the Raptors at their place. You could consider Springfield the underdog, if only because the Cougars not only would’ve gleefully agreed but spent the week seeking to weaponize that sentiment.
“We love the underdog mentality so that we don’t come out tight and we can have all that energy,” senior defensive middie Michael Hoey said. “We love for the other team to come out tight. When we have that underdog mentality, I feel like we’re so much more energetic and all that.”
So you had the Cougars managing to draw three flags on the normally disciplined Raptors while being whistled for just one themselves. You had grimy goals, like Tyler Gougler causing a turnover while riding on a clear, leading to a Patrick Flaherty groundball and goal. You had Lucas Aaron going 17-for-22 on faceoffs, every last one of them under heavy harassment by Radnor’s array of blue-chip poles.
And you had a Springfield defense. Actually, you’ll always have the Springfield defense, the cornerstone of a program that is perennially greater than the sum of its parts, even when this year’s unit was without a player who was starting as a freshman in the Final Four last weekend in Philly, Penn State’s Ryan O’Connor.
“I think we were flying around, throwing wrinkles, mucking it up inside,” defenseman Nick Labutis said. “I think that caught them off-guard. It wasn’t something they were expecting, and it caught them off guard.”
Anywhere else, mucking it up might be a pejorative. Around Springfield, it’s high praise.
Springfield put Radnor under pressure like few teams have this year. The Cougars led 7-4 when Flaherty scored his second straight goal. Though Radnor got back within one before the quarter ended, thanks to a Colin French dive to the goal, the damage was done, Radnor not holding a lead from the midpoint of the second quarter on.
The early part of the fourth quarter resembled free-flowing lacrosse, something neither coach may have expected nor wanted at that juncture. Cooper Mueller tied the game 59 seconds into the fourth, after he had come out of the box, the Raptors killing a flag. Sean Donaldson swam through two defenders to bury one a minute later, then swam on the turf at East to celebrate. Kessy Cox replied to make it 8-all, and a spectacular double-save by Nick DeCain on Gougler and Ty Henderson kept the game tied after that pulsating stretch.
It’s a testament to Radnor’s brilliance last year that it accomplished so much without the sting of disappointment. Many a journey along the way has been spiked by that feeling: Falling short in the league motivates a district title run; district disappointment seals a team’s states desire.
Springfield used the regular-season loss this week as a rallying point, Flaherty saying the team, “took that personally.” That Radnor hasn’t had such a slight to play off of since winning its first of two consecutive state titles in 2021 is testament to the Raptors’ excellence. Though that emotional balance shifts now with the state tournament ahead.
“When it’s such a big rivalry, you have to come in more prepared than we just did,” French said. “You’ve got to lock in, and after that, we’ve got to bounce back.”
Springfield will have to recalibrate on that front, too, hard as it is to be underdogs when you have “1-1” next to your name in the PIAA bracket. They may have to do it without the final’s hero, Gougler. After his second fourth-quarter goal, both moves on the crease where he just outmuscled defenders, he fell awkwardly on his leg during a celebration and had it iced postgame, needing help walking.
It might seem like another reason to take the Cougars lightly down the road. But as they showed Wednesday and countless times under the leadership of Tom Lemieux, that’s when they’re at their most dangerous.
“We just make sure we’re giving it our all every time, especially when we’re out there in a championship game,” Labutis said. “If we’re mixing it up, just whatever we have to do to get a win.”
Contact Matthew De George at email@example.com; you can follow him on Twitter @sportsdoctormd.