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La Salle keeps focus to top Cardinal O’Hara, advance to PCL semifinals

SPRINGFIELD >> Soccer is as much about physical talent and possession as it is mental fortitude.

La Salle knew Cardinal O’Hara was going to be playing a style meant to slow and frustrate the Explorers. It meant when early chances didn’t go in and every trip up the field was met by a swarm of blue shirts behind the ball, they couldn’t get frustrated.

When the goals did come, La Salle also knew it couldn’t stop playing just because it had taken a lead.

A well-prepared and well-focused top-seeded Explorers team topped the No. 10 Lions in the Philadelphia Catholic League quarterfinals Friday afternoon at Lower Bartley Field. The win sends La Salle into Wednesday’s quarterfinals at United German-Hungarians Soccer Club in Trevose.

“You have to stay calm,” La Salle senior goalkeeper Brett Werner said. “That’s the biggest thing, I believe, staying calm, sticking your game plan and doing the things you do best.”

O’Hara advanced into the quarters after playing No. 7 seed Bonner-Prendie to a draw, then winning a penalty kick shootout. For most of the first half, the Lions did exactly what they wanted and got numbers behind the ball and packed into the box and disrupting La Salle’s speed.

The Explorers made a tactical shift and it paid off for them when senior midfielder Gio Randazzo picked out forward Sean McCallum with a perfectly-weighted through ball. McCallum was able to pull O’Hara’s keeper off the line, then calmly finished to the back post with a sliver more than two minutes left in the fist half.

“We had to figure out the ball over the top and figure out our runs,” McCallum said. “Once we changed formations to a 4-4-2, it became a lot simpler to play balls to the back post and find a striker. You have to know where your run is, you can’t keep trying to play the ball through the middle of the field because everyone’s there and it doesn’t work.”

While the Lions saw their season come to an end, it was a successful year for second-year head coach Mike McDevitt. His team finished under the .500 mark, but doubled its wins from last year, picked up a few more draws and most importantly, came out on top of a playoff game.

“We left it all on the field,” McDevitt said. “At the beginning of the season I talked a lot about mental toughness, we had the physical toughness and the senior leadership took over, it went to another level and our mental toughness caught up to our physical toughness.”

La Salle’s defense held O’Hara without a shot on goal and Werner, who has committed to play at La Salle University, ended his home career in the most fitting way possible with a shutout. The Explorers had a six-day wait between games after earning a first-round PCL playoff bye, their last action coming as a 3-3 draw with North Penn.

The time off was good for La Salle, which scrimmaged its JV team to stay sharp and kept things as close to routine as possible.

“We got a chance to clear our heads,” Werner said. “We stayed focused, watched some film to see what we did wrong and evaluated from there.”

McCallum said he and his teammates expected a defensive identity from O’Hara and La Salle used its week of preparation to work on getting numbers up and finding combinations through the middle of the field and out wide to create chances.

“We scored on three chances, we had a lot more good opportunities we couldn’t convert on,” McCallum said. “Obviously in the future, we’re going to look to convert on more of those.”

La Salle got just what it needed to start the second half when Chris Metzler knocked in a ball after a furious scramble in the net. O’Hara defenders blocked about four shots with the ball continuing to pinball around until it found the winger at the post for the finish about two minutes into the half.

The Explorers iced the game when Chrisitan Calabretta headed in Chris Marzullo’s corner, one of 14 La Salle took in the game, with 25 minutes remaining.

“We wanted to put one in on them quickly to try and take the life out of them,” McCallum said. “Once we did, we were able to settle down and find our own form and play that way for the rest of the game. We took them like they were a Roman or a Judge and didn’t joke around in preparing.”

“A team like this, even going up 2-0 or 3-0, they’re here for a reason, it wasn’t a fluke and they’re going to come after us until the last whistle,” Werner said. “We had to stay mentally involved in the game.”

Werner was a huge factor in last year’s semifinal where La Salle advanced over Archbishop Wood on penalty kicks but McCallum will be getting his first experience of the crowd and atmosphere at UGH.

“I can’t wait to step on that field,” McCallum, a junior, said. “I watched last year from the sideline and I’ve just always wanted to be on that field. I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”

“Me personally, I love a big crowd when it’s loud and obnoxious,” Werner said. “It puts a good attitude and tone to the game and I feel we play better as a team in that kind of situation.”

LA SALLE 1 2 – 3

Goals: L – Sean McCallum (Gio Randazzo), Chris Metzler, Christian Calabretta (Chris Marzullo).

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