By: John Knebels
Photos: Donna Eckert
PHILADELPHIA – As the ball hit the wet turf and the game was officially over, La Salle’s delirious players were quickly joined by clusters of jubilant fans and family members to form a massive and extremely loud celebration.
Winning a Catholic League championship will do that to a community.
On a late, drizzly October 26 afternoon at James Ramp Memorial Recreation Center, the Explorers followed a 1-1 regulation and two scoreless overtime periods against three-seed Roman Catholic with a 3-1 advantage in penalty kicks, thus tearing the heart out of a Cahillite squad that arguably dominated for three quarters of the initial 80 minutes but was unable to execute a game-winning goal despite umpteen chances.
La Salle’s third championship in the last four years, fifth this decade, and 10thin school history wasn’t supposed to happen. Most of last year’s starters graduated, leaving a roster consisting of only five seniors, three of them goaltenders.
“Everybody expected us not to be as strong as usual,” said senior Vito Leone. “A lot of people counted us out.”
Leone knows about being counted out.
In the spring of his sophomore year, Leone tore his anterior cruciate ligament during a non-contact play during club ball. The injury required surgery and almost a year of rehabilitation.
After losing his entire junior high school season, Leone couldn’t wait for this fall to begin. It was imperative to satisfy an exorbitant amount of unfinished business.
“It was devastating,” said Leone. “Sitting out was tough. It definitely wasn’t fun at all. But one thing sitting out did was help me see how the game is played in a very different way.”
This past spring, Leone received the medical okay to fully participate in soccer activity. In late August, a fully healthy Leone earned a role as a starter at left center back. He and his mates ultimately returned to familiar ground, winning 11 of 12 Catholic League games to emerge as the top seed in the league playoffs.
After defeating Conwell-Egan in the quarterfinals and Archbishop Ryan in the semifinals, La Salle faced a Roman team that had reached the finals for a sixth consecutive season and was coming off a 1-0 win over defending champion Archbishop Wood.
“A tough Roman team,” said La Salle junior Ben Herron. “They have speed, a great defense, and a great goalie.”
In the championship played before a significant crowd, the two soccer rivals traded second-half goals – sophomore Hayden Grosso connecting for La Salle, and senior Kieran Donnelly for Roman.
Strong goaltending by Roman Catholic senior Kevin Tobin and La Salle senior Jack Heineman prevented either team from winning in sudden-death overtime, and for the second straight season, the Catholic League championship would be decided by penalty kicks.
As had already been predetermined, LaSalle switched net-minders, opting for senior Gavin McDade.
“We work pretty well together,” said Heineman. “We know that Gav is a better PK player, so give him a shot. He showed ya.”
While sophomore Sean Jennings, senior Jake Crawford, and the aforementioned Grosso scored on three of La Salle’s four shots, Roman answered with a shot off the post, a goal by senior Sebastian Gonzalez, a low shot to the left that was impeded by a diving McDade, and a blast that clanked off the crossbar before bouncing out of harm’s way and ending the game.
Among the most excited Explorers basking in the glow of victory was Leone.
“It was a very emotional year for me,” said Leone. “Coming back to be with the guys, then winning a championship. This year’s team was definitely my favorite team at La Salle.”
Explorer coach Tom McCaffery was thrilled for all his players, particularly Leone.
“Vito has been a tremendous varsity player for three years now,” said McCaffery. “To watch him go through a knee injury and have to watch all of last season was tough. His rehab was intense, and I knew he was going to be a big player for us this year.
“I am happy to see the success he has found in his senior year. I just wish I had more time to coach him and to learn from his determination as a person. He is a well-respected player, student, and leader in our school community. I look forward to seeing him be successful the rest of this year and throughout his college years.”
(Contact John Knebels at Jknebels@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnknebels.)