Last season, Connor Daly, after blowing out his left knee in an early nonleague game against West Catholic, was not on the field for the latter portion of La Salle's drive to the PIAA Class AAAA state football championship.
So, the senior middle linebacker, trying to make up for lost playing time, is especially immersed in this year's repeat bid. And that certainly showed in Saturday's quarterfinal rematch with Easton.
With Daly registering a team-high 12 tackles, including eight solo stops, the slow-starting Explorers rallied for a 19-7 victory at chilly Charlie Martin Memorial Stadium, again sending the rugged and hard-hitting Red Rovers packing.
"It's a pretty incredible feeling to be part of this," the 6-foot, 195-pound Daly said. "I probably get a little emotional because of the hard work I had to put in to get back out there. It makes it even more rewarding."
La Salle, 12-1 and ranked No. 1 in Southeastern Pennsylvania by The Inquirer, will meet No. 2 North Penn (13-1) in a state semifinal at 1 p.m. Saturday at Plymouth Whitemarsh. On Sept. 3, in the opener for both teams, the visiting Explorers downed the Knights, 27-14.
"Yeah, they're going to want to get back at us," Daly said of North Penn. "That's only natural. But I say, 'Bring it on.' We're ready to go."
The final score Saturday might indicate another comfortable victory, but the Explorers, lacking their usual intensity and hurt by poor tackling, trailed, 7-3, at the break. In the second quarter, Easton (12-3) went in front with a 15-play, 78-yard drive.
On third and goal from the 8, quarterback Justin Pacchioli, escaping a heavy rush and throwing just before being hit by tackle Cameron Cappo, connected with flanker Tyler Holjes for the score. The series lasted nearly eight minutes.
"Everyone was a little upset at halftime," said Daly, a tri-captain. "We didn't come out and play La Salle football. But we talked things out. We knew things had to change, and change quickly."
The Explorers took the second-half kickoff and leaned heavily on tailback Jamal Abdur-Rahman and multipurpose standout Kevin Forster. And, operating at times from the Wildcat formation, the senior catalysts welcomed the load.
Forster provided runs of 4 and 8 yards. Abdur-Rahman (17 carries for 105 yards; three catches for 67) later escaped for gains of 10 and 18 yards. And, after an 8-yard burst by fullback Tim Wade, quarterback Matt Magarity's 1-yard sneak made it 10-7.
"Bottom line, in the second half, we just couldn't be consistent on defense," Red Rovers coach Steve Shiffert said. "No. 22 [Abdur-Rahman] and No. 9 [Forster] hurt us a number of times."
Over the final 24 minutes, Daly and company - fellow linebacker Sean Burke totaled eight tackles - held the District 11 titlists to 47 yards rushing and 20 passing.
In the fourth quarter, tackle Ryan Geiger recovered a Pacchioli fumble at the La Salle 46. A left-side swing pass from Magarity to Abdur-Rahman netted 40 yards and set up Ryan Winslow's second field goal, a 26-yarder, to make it 13-7 with 2 minutes, 31 seconds to play.
Three plays later, Abdur-Rahman, doubling at right cornerback, intercepted a Pacchioli pass near the sideline and returned it 37 yards to the end zone. Game over.
Said La Salle coach Drew Gordon: "I told the kids before the game, 'This is going to go four quarters.' The only question was how we were going to react to it."
Pacchioli completed 7 of 18 passes for 64 yards. He rushed 11 times for 39 yards.
Easton 0 7 0 0 – 7
La Salle 3 0 7 9 – 19
LS: FG Winslow 32
E: Holjes 8 pass from Pacchioli (Bisci kick)
LS: Magarity 1 run (Winslow kick)
LS: FG Winslow 26
LS: Abdur-Rahman 37 interception return (kick failed)