The challenge was unique. Halfway into this season, La Salle coach Bill Leahy unlocked the trophy case and placed each trophy the lacrosse-rich school has won through the years on top of a steep hill. Each senior had a ball behind him to defend, and the underclassmen, in full equipment, were ordered to charge up the hill and take the balls.

The underclassmen made it look easy. But the lesson was there: It's much easier going after a championship than defending it.

Entering this season, La Salle was the target of every prime team in the area, after winning last spring's Keystone Cup. This season the title of state champion is there for the taking, since this is the first year the PIAA, the governing body of high school sports in Pennsylvania, is holding a state championship in lacrosse.

Now the Explorers can do something no other Pennsylvania lacrosse team has ever done before - and that's win an outright PIAA state championship.

Another step in that process comes today in the state semifinals, where the Explorers (20-4 overall) will play District 3 champion Manheim Township (20-5) at Governor Mifflin High School at 8 p.m. The other boys' semifinal game will feature Central League rivals Springfield (19-5) against Conestoga (23-1) today at 1 p.m. at Harriton High School.

In the girls' state semifinals, Radnor (23-1) will play District 3 champion Manheim Township (20-4) today at 6 p.m. at Governor Mifflin, while Strath Haven (20-4) faces Unionville (21-3) today at West Chester East at 6 p.m.

The first-ever PIAA lacrosse state championship will take place Saturday at HersheyPark Stadium in a boys-girls doubleheader.

"I kind of look at it differently, without having Malvern Prep and Haverford School involved, from the Inter-Ac, because of this move, it's not what I would say is a true state championship," Leahy said. "It's a shame that those teams aren't in the mix, but it shouldn't diminish what my kids can do. It's still the state championship and our kids are really focused on this."

The Explorers beat Manheim, 7-5, last spring in what was an unofficial version of the state championship. But Leahy has a good idea of what he will see today from the Blue Streaks.

"They play a zone defense, which is meant to slow down the game, and they have good stickhandlers," Leahy said. "They value their possessions on offense. They were tough kids that knocked us down sometimes.

"It's why we spent some time this year playing king of the mountain. We put all the trophies at the top of a hill, the Eastern Trophy, last year's Keystone Cup, and the seniors had to defend it. The younger guys charged up the hill and took all the balls. This was mortal combat. It's why it makes it much more special to repeat in anything. This is a special team that has seen it all and can do it."

The Explorers will be led by seniors Randy Forster (Penn State), an attack who has scored more than 20 goals, senior All-American goaltender Nicholas Amato (Maryland) and two-time All-American defender Tucker Durkin (Johns Hopkins).

The other boys' semifinal game, Springfield vs. Conestoga, is a rematch of a game played over 2 days, April 21 and 22, suspended originally because of lightning and finished the following day. The Pioneers prevailed, 12-9, giving Springfield its first loss this season.

"This is definitely not an easy game, and it's a league opponent and it's hard to beat anyone twice," Conestoga coach Brian Samson said. "Springfield is a talented team."

Cougars junior Josh Cavanaugh has 38 goals, though he has been battling a pulled right hamstring. The Cougars are a team made up mostly of juniors, including all-state junior goaltender Austin Kaut, who made 11 saves in Springfield's 7-4 victory over Carlisle in the state quarterfinals on Saturday.

In the girls' semifinals, Radnor will be led by seniors Sam Ellis and Courtney Campbell and junior Kelyn Freedman. Sophomore Annie Woehling has done a nice job for the Red Raiders in the net. Manheim beat Peters Township, 13-10, in the state quarterfinals, behind four goals from sophomore Molly Curcio.

Strath Haven will have a challenge in Unionville, which upset District 1 champion Springfield in the quarterfinals, 10-8, while the Panthers throttled Hempfield, 23-7, in the other quarter, thanks to five goals from Ana White and four from Emily Garrity. *

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