After falling to La Salle in last season's district boys' lacrosse final, St. Joseph's Prep coach Eric Gregg said his team didn't want to experience that taste again. He said with that loss, the Hawks set a goal to get over the hump and get past La Salle.
With a senior-laden team, the Hawks finally edged out La Salle this season to capture the program's first Catholic League title since 2003 and the lone spot in the state tournament from District 12. After winning three straight state tournament games, the Hawks are on the doorstep of capturing their first PIAA state lacrosse title.
St. Joseph's Prep will meet Conestoga at 3 p.m. Saturday at HersheyPark Stadium for the championship.
"They had to do whatever it takes, from offseason conditioning to being disciplined in the classroom," said Gregg, who took over as head coach in the fall of 2008.
It's Conestoga's third straight trip to the title game, after beating La Salle last season. The top seed in District 1, the Pioneers are the top-ranked team in the PIAA, according to Phillylacrosse.com, and are ranked No. 3 in the nation by ESPN. The Hawks are ranked third in the PIAA and 33d in the nation.
Gregg said he has much respect for the style of program run by Conestoga coach Brian Samson. "My hat goes off to them. He's an incredible leader and has kept them focused," Gregg said.
No team has stayed close to Conestoga thus far in the tournament: The Pioneers are outscoring opponents by an average of 11.3 goals. The Pioneers' fast-paced style has worked efficiently and combined with a stingy, aggressive defense. The lone blemish on their record is an April loss to Haverford School, the nation's top team.
"It's the way they like to play. They like to play fast," Samson said after his team downed Central Bucks East in the state semifinals. "When we do that, it only helps our momentum, and I think it's tough for the other team."
When Gregg took over the program from Dan Keating, he said the Hawks were already "a bunch of guys with talent and discipline." But the West Philadelphia native noticed that the team needed to work together more.
He stressed the idea that it wasn't as important to make the best possible play as it was to make the right play on the field. The results have shown, as Gregg pointed to the multiple high goal-scorers and the fact that the Hawks rely on the contributions of two goaltenders.
Before easily downing Mount Lebanon, 15-5, in Tuesday's semifinals, the Hawks needed to rally past Pennsbury and Manheim Township in the first two rounds. Gregg said those wins showed the resiliency of his players.
"Stay cool, not panic. That's what championship teams do," Gregg said. "We have to play hard together."