Photos/Videos: Donna Eckert, John Knebels & David Picariello
By: John Knebels
PHILADELPHIA – Ryan Kalup looked like he had just left a street fight.
Metaphorically, he had.
With less than three minutes remaining in the first overtime period, the La Salle senior goalie collided with an opponent and needed medical assistance in an adjacent field.
“I hear a whistle and I hear cheers,” said Kalup, two bandages covering the outside of his right eyebrow and a thick vertical bloodstain plastered under the center of his jersey. “I turn around and . . .”
After making several key stops during a back-and-forth regulation, Kalup had missed watching sophomore teammate Liam Connaghan head-ball junior teammate Finn Murray’s free kick into the cage with 1:43 remaining in overtime to lift La Salle past defending champion Archbishop Ryan, 2-1, in Wednesday night’s Philadelphia Catholic League semifinal at the James Ramp Memorial Recreation Center.
The Explorers will face top-seed Father Judge – 3-2 victors over Archbishop Wood in the preceding semifinal – 6 PM Saturday at Northeast High School.
“I see Liam Connaghan running to the corner celebrating,” Kalup said. “And I said, ‘You gotta stop taping me. I gotta go.’ So I ran and celebrated with the guys. It was crazy.”
La Salle and Ryan entered the playoffs with identical 9-2 records. The Explorers received the second seed because of their 2-1 double overtime win over the three-seed Raiders on a goal by sophomore Shea Crawford back on September 19.
Not surprisingly, the two heavyweights fought back and forth throughout the 80 minutes of regulation and more than 13 minutes of overtime.
After a scoreless half, junior Sam Zieger broke the deadlock to give La Salle a 1-0 lead, but a magnificent shot by Ryan sophomore Ethan Delgado off a feed from junior Peyton Barton tied the game at 1-1, setting the stage for a dramatic conclusion.
“That goal was an unbelievable strike into the back panel that not a lot of guys that I’ve seen could do,” La Salle coach Tom McCaffery. “It seems like it’s coming out of nowhere, and the next thing you know, it’s looped into the back and it’s 1-1.”
A student of PCL soccer, McCaffery wasn’t surprised that the semifinal required an extra session to establish a winner.
“You look at the La Salle-Ryan rivalry going back to the late 80s early 90s,” McCaffery said. “It’s always fun to play in the semifinals and to have it go to overtime – the second time it’s gone to overtime between us and them – just shows you how close and how talented both teams are. It’s fun anytime you can run with these guys, because they’re great.”
After the raucous celebration by teammates and fans had subsided, and the Explorers had huddled with their coach to laud their effort and quickly look ahead to the championship, the semifinal hero – Connaghan – still seemed a tad stunned about his exploits.
Though he never recalled scoring an overtime winner, Connaghan admitted that he had fantasized about the moment. Then again, what soccer player hasn’t?
“I just remember the ball coming in,” Connaghan said. “It was within range. I just went up and put my head on it and beat the keeper to it. It feels great.”
Echoing his teammates and coach, Connaghan said he heavily preferred avoiding penalty kicks.
“Anybody can win in penalty kicks,” said Connaghan, whom McCaffery described as “fired up” and with “a little bit of an edge when I looked him in the eye” before overtime. “I trust our chance in the field of play.”
Connaghan said he was “grateful” to play for such a storied program.
“It’s a great opportunity,” he said. “I’m very thankful to my parents for allowing me to come here.”
With 15 visits to the PCL championship, 11 titles, and four crowns in the past six seasons, La Salle will meet a Father Judge squad that finished the regular season a perfect 11-0 after a 10-1 season last fall ultimately ended in a penalty kick loss to Archbishop Ryan in the final.
The Crusaders were pushed to the limit by determined four-seed Archbishop Wood. After all-state senior Abou Cherif scored off a feed from senior Kevin Castro to give Judge a 1-0 lead early in the first half, the Vikings tied the game on a tally by senior Logan Savage. Castro regained Judge a 2-1 edge heading into halftime.
When Cherif scored again to increase Judge’s lead to 3-1, the game seemed pretty much over. Wood, however, had other plans as all-state senior Enzo Petruzzelli made it 3-2.
“It was big,” said Cherif, referring to Judge’s third goal. “It took the pressure off of us a little and we were able to relax a little. But when they got that second goal, then we had to jump back in.”
Wood became the first PCL team to score against the Crusaders since Judge’s 2-1 win over Archbishop Carroll on September 29.
“We came out knowing it wasn’t going to be easy,” Cherif said. “All week, we knew they were going to come out with fire. It’s win or go home.”
Winners of four titles, Father Judge last won the PCL in 2013. They’ve lost their last three tries in 2015, 2021, and 2022. Of their six losses in the finals, three have been versus La Salle (2021, 2012, and 2011).
“It feels great to be back,” said junior Gavin Dunlop, son of Judge coach John Dunlop. “We’re going to try our hardest to take it home this year. I really want one for my dad and for this team. We haven’t won in a long time, so we really want it.”