MILLERSVILLE - Thirty-two games, many of them hard-fought contests. A pulsating, one-goal victory three days earlier against archrival Malvern Prep. Before that, it took a pair of last-second goals, one at the end of regulation and one in overtime, to get past Haverford School.
Yes, La Salle was pretty much a lacrosse team running on fumes while playing Manheim Township last night for the Keystone Cup.
After three early goals, that sluggishness was apparent. But the Explorers fought through their tiredness, overcame a 17-minute scoring drought, and knocked off the Blue Streaks, 7-5, on the turf at Comet Field.
"We're exhausted," La Salle coach Bill Leahy said. "We're emotionally and physically exhausted. So to come out and win this game, we'll take it. It wasn't pretty, but we'll take it."
The Explorers (31-2) won their first Keystone Cup since 2004. The nine-year tournament will be a thing of the past for La Salle as the PIAA is set to assume authority of the sport for member schools. "The challenge now is to be the first PIAA champion," Leahy said.
Since the inception of the tournament in 2000, a team from the Eastern part of the state has always claimed the trophy. Ridley won three straight crowns from 2001 to 2003. Haverford School triumphed in 2000 and 2005. Malvern Prep prevailed in 2006, and Downingtown East won last year.
"It's a great feeling to win here," said La Salle's Conrad Ridgway, a senior midfielder headed to Penn State. "The EPSLA [Eastern Pennsylvania Scholastic Lacrosse Association] championship doesn't mean anything if you don't win the Keystone Cup."
Against Manheim Township, the Central Pennsylvania Scholastic Lacrosse Association titlist, La Salle took a 3-0 lead in the first eight minutes. Randy Forster's two tallies sandwiched a goal by Ryan Eidenshink.
Second-quarter scores by Matt Lynch and Gordie Wells put the Explorers in front, 5-2, at intermission. The Blue Streaks (19-9) rallied in the second half and closed the gap to 6-5 with 9 minutes, 19 seconds to play. That made for a tense ending.
"We've had a lot of emotional games lately," La Salle junior goalie Niko Amato said. "It was hard to get up for this one."
Also difficult was getting past Manheim Township's zone defense. "We've had problems with that scheme all year," Leahy said. "We never mastered it. Tonight, we fought through it."
Peter Schwartz, who netted nine goals in five playoff games, provided the Explorers with an insurance score with 8:41 remaining.
The 6-foot, 180-pound Forster notched a hat trick and an assist. Amato posted 14 saves. His main protectors were Tucker Durkin, Tyler Houchins, Eric Heisner and Mike Noone.
The Blue Streaks received a hat trick from junior Dan Mertz and two goals from Chris Zielinski. Zielinski, a senior midfielder bound for Colgate, totaled 67 goals and 26 assists this season.
La Salle 3 2 1 1 - 7
Manheim Township 1 1 1 2 - 5
Goals: LSRandy Forster 3, Ryan Eidenshink, Matt Lynch, Gordie Wells, Peter Schwartz; MTDan Wertz 3, Chris Zielinski 2.
Saves: LSNiko Amato 14; MTChris Gorham 16.