With the PIAA about to assume authority over the growing sport, last night's Eastern Pennsylvania Scholastic Lacrosse Association boys' championship game pitted La Salle, a soon-to-be PIAA member, against Malvern Prep, an independent in need of a new affiliation.

With gritty defense and spectacular play from goalie Niko Amato, the Explorers took the last EPSLA crown with a 4-3 victory over the Friars at Garnet Valley High. It was their first title since 2004.

"This is the greatest thing you can ask for," said Amato, a junior who registered 11 saves. "We wanted it badly, and we went out and got it."

As they did in their April 17 nonleague meeting, the second-seeded Explorers (30-2) held off a late surge. (La Salle won the earlier game by a score of 7-6.)

Down by 4-1 at the end of three quarters, top-seeded Malvern Prep (21-3) closed the gap to 4-3 with just over two minutes to play.

"We both have great defenses, great goalies," said Conrad Ridgway, a senior midfielder for La Salle. "We expected a tight, close game."

La Salle will play Manheim Township, an 11-4 winner over Mount Lebanon last night, for the Keystone Cup on Friday at a site and time to be determined. Manheim Township (19-8) is a member of the Central Pennsylvania Scholastic Lacrosse Association.

The 5-foot-8, 173-pound Amato was named the game's most valuable player. Another candidate for that award was junior attackman Pete Schwartz, who tallied in the first and third quarters.

The defense that shined in front of Amato included Tucker Durkin, Derek Bogorowski, Eric Heisner and Mike Noone.

"We wanted to keep Chris Layne and Matt Mackrides, their initiators, under control," La Salle coach Bill Leahy said. "And we wanted to protect the front of the goal."

Malvern Prep totaled 30 shots, including 14 on the cage. However, John McEvoy's squad could not overcome a sluggish start.

"We didn't get comfortable, weren't sharing the ball a lot," McEvoy said. "We were coming down and doing the one-and-done thing."

Mackrides, a member of the U.S. under-19 national team and a Penn State recruit, had two goals. However, from his second-quarter goal to Colin McGeehin's fourth-quarter tally, the Friars went more than 24 minutes without a score.

La Salle led, 2-1, at intermission on goals by Schwartz and freshman Kevin Forster. Ridgway, also headed to Penn State, found the net in the third quarter.

La Salle 1 1 2 0 - 4

Malvern Prep 0 1 0 2 - 3

Goals: L-Pete Schwartz 2, Kevin Forster, Conrad Ridgway.

MP-Matt Mackrides 2, Colin McGeehin.

Saves: L-Niko Amato 11; MP-Andrew O'Connell 5.

Contact staff writer Rick O'Brien at 610-313-8019 or robrien@phillynews.com.