Photos/Videos: Marc Narducci & Mike Nance
By Marc Narducci
WEST CHESTER, PA -- Adversity comes in different packages and Malvern Prep’s lacrosse team received its fair share earlier in the year courtesy of an unprecedented losing streak.
The Friars lost five games in a row, a figure unfathomable for a program that makes routine visits each year in the national rankings, including this season.
Never mind that the losses were to quality teams, with lacrosse reputations as formidable as Malvern Prep.
It was five losses, and to say the Friars were shocked and their pride was dented, was a major understatement.
Past Malvern Prep teams were wondering what ailed the current edition. To be honest, the current edition was wondering how to plug up the leaks.
That was back in late March and the first part of April, an eternity when considering the gargantuan leap that the team has made since then.
The roller coaster ride of a season ended up the way the Friars’ original blueprint was drawn – with Malvern Prep defeating rival Haverford School, 9-5 in the Inter-Ac Tournament championship game, played before a huge crowd at West Chester University.
It was redemption for the Friars, knocking off their most heated rival. Unlike last year when Malvern Prep scored an 11-10 overtime decision over the Haverford School in the Inter-Ac tourney title game, this year the Friars were the ever so slight underdog.
Haverford School went through the meat-grinder of the Inter-Ac schedule unscathed, 10-0. Malvern Prep was 8-2, with both losses coming to Haverford School, including a 10-6 home loss to the Fords on April 11.
That was an important date because it was the day that Malvern Prep lost its fifth consecutive game.
After that, the Friars, who ended 16-7 overall, would only lose two games, 11-10 in the regular season rematch with Haverford School and 10-9 to Delaware state power Salesianum.
Malvern Prep ended with five consecutive wins, including a 12-5 victory over Seton Hall Prep, which was ranked No. 2 in New Jersey by NJ.com at the time of the game.
The Friars were simply playing their best lacrosse down the stretch.
They defeated a quality Episcopal Academy team, 16-7 in the Inter-Ac tournament semifinals. The confidence meter was trending sky high as Malvern Prep entered the championship.
“You want to be playing your best lacrosse at the end of the season when it matters the most,” said Malvern Prep first-year coach Matt Mackrides, who had been a long-time assistant and before that a standout player for the Friars. “We did go on a roller coaster, and I challenged our community, our team, to stay the course in the tough times and the leadership of our captains and seniors really did shine through at that time and led us through that roller coaster and got us to playing our best lacrosse in late May.”
This was a game where Malvern Prep’s defense made a huge statement, the loudest coming from junior long stick middie Lucca DiBartolomeo. A Penn State commit, DiBartolomeo had five ground balls and was a towering force.
Malvern Prep wins second consecutive Inter-Ac Tournament Championship - PSD Photo by Marc Narducci
“Today he was the best player on the field (and was) the last two games we played,” Mackrides said of DiBartolomeo. “Constant caused turnovers, he was everywhere, he was flying, he was communicating.”
And he was dominating.
Afterwards DiBartolomeo reflected on the rocky roller coaster drive.
“Winning this feels amazing,” DiBartolomeo said. “This team had a lot of ups and downs this season, but I knew this team had the grit to win.”
Haverford School averaged 10.5 goals in the two regular season wins against Malvern Prep, so DiBartolomeo and company knew the Friars had to make an adjustment.
“They had a lot of transition, so we knew this game if we could limit their transition goals, they would not score as much,” DiBartolomeo said. “So coming out, we had an amazing game from our goalie and our defenders played as a unit.”
That goalie was senior Chris Rabena, who had 14 saves, stopping many shots that looked like sure goals.
“I thought their goalie played great, he was on fire at times out there,” Haverford School coach Brendan Dawson said.
Imagine getting to play like that in the final game of your high school career with so much at stake.
“It’s the best game of my life,” Rabena said.
Malvern Prep was led by sophomore Mike Ortlieb, who scored four goals and junior Ennis Udo, who added two. The other goal scorers were seniors Billy Irish, and Carson Myers and sophomore Jake Bickel.
All-American AJ Nikolic added two assists and drew plenty of defensive attention.
Five different players scored for Haverford School – junior Aydan DiRocco and seniors Ryan DiRocco, Colin Zeller, Wells Flinn and Brendan Leary.
Irish had the game’s most spectacular goal, splitting two defenders before finishing. That extended the Friars’ lead to 5-3 with 6:10 left in the second quarter.
“It feels awesome, especially with a season of ups and downs, but we pulled through,” said Irish, who will continue his career and education at Lafayette. “We realize who we are.”
Which is a pretty darned good lacrosse team.
Udo’s goal made it 6-3 at the half and then the key was the third quarter. The Friars pitched a shutout, outscoring Haverford School, 2-0 on two Ortlieb goals. The Friars also held a significant time of possession advantage in the quarter.
That made it 8-3 entering the fourth quarter and the way Rabena and the Malvern Prep defense was playing, it proved to be too big of an obstacle.
Haverford School finished 17-3. Included was a 16-15 win over St. Anthony of New York, which was ranked No. 1 in the country at the time.
The regular season winner is considered the Inter-Ac champion, so that means Haverford School is the official champ. Malvern Prep is the tournament champion.
“It certainly doesn’t feel like it right now,” Dawson said about being the Inter-Ac champs. “But what I told these guys is that they are going to look back on the season and remember how special it was, even though it stings right now.”
Malvern Prep will obviously look back on the season fondly.
“They are regular season, we are the tournament champions,” Irish said. “Beating a team three times is hard, but give props to them, they had a good season.”
And so did Malvern Prep.
“Starting the season, I thought we were one of the best teams in the country and then we lost five in a row, and we were really down in the dumps,” said Nikolic, who will play in the 18th annual senior All-American Lacrosse Game on July 29 at Johns Hopkins University. “But we came together as a team when it mattered, we played as a team and trusted each other, and this is the result.”