La Salle College High School - 2023 PCL Boys Soccer Champions - PSD Photo by Donna Eckert
Photos: Donna Eckert & Zack Beavers
By John Knebels
PHILADELPHIA – Whenever La Salle’s season ends, hopefully in a few weeks, the most vivid memories will undoubtedly return to October 28.
In the massive auditorium that comprises marquee moments in Philadelphia Catholic League vast soccer lore, the Explorers’ 3-2 championship victory over Father Judge at Northeast High School sits firmly entrenched inside the front row.
Before the Explorers take on visiting West Chester Rustin in Tuesday’s first round of the Class 4A PIAA state tournament, the Explorers were asked to reminisce on an epic comeback against a Father Judge team that had entered the final undefeated.
“What was going through my mind about that unreal win was the disbelief I was in that we came back from a deficit against such a competitive team,” said junior Andrew Markman, whose defense helped mitigate Father Judge’s potential scoring prowess. “It really goes to show how hard the team worked throughout the offseason up to the end of the game.”
Down 2-0 in the first half and seemingly enroute to a disastrous evening in front of an enormous crowd, La Salle remained steady. Another Father Judge goal would have certainly rendered moot the possibility of a comeback, but the thought of getting to halftime down two goals against such a strong defense did not exactly exude optimism.
The two-seed Explorers needed a goal, and with four minutes remaining in the first half, junior Mark Mazzoni delivered.
“I knew we had to get at least one before the half,” Mazzoni said. “After I scored that goal, I remember how hard my teammates fought and won that ball to get me an opportunity to score the goal. Jogging back, I saw a different look on the game on how determined my teammates and I were. That goal showed grit and determination that our team was very capable of putting two more in. As you saw, we did just that. That goal felt like the momentum got our team back in mentally.”
Inside the final minute, the Explorers were buzzing. With 43 seconds left, senior Dom Lupinacci passed to sophomore Shea Crawford. From 21 yards away, Crawford drilled a shot into the cage, and La Salle had somehow – and, quite frankly, shockingly – forged a 2-2 tie.
La Salle’s sideline erupted, as did its fanbase. Conversely, Father Judge, which had defeated La Salle, 2-0, on September 26 and had allowed only eight goals in 13 PCL games, appeared in a state of disbelief.
“Scoring in a PCL championship game was something I’ve always dreamed about and will definitely be something I will never forget,” Crawford said. “I remember being told by Coach (Tom McCaffery) that I was going to sub back in for the final five minutes of the half. We were still down, 2-0, when he said that, and we needed just some sort of burst of energy heading into the half. Mark got it started for us right under the five-minute mark of the game.
“I subbed in after Mark’s goal and said to myself that we are going to get one more within the next couple of minutes. We had the momentum, and luckily, I had the chance to change the game and make it a whole new one. After Dom fought in a hard one-versus-one battle, the ball was loose around 20 yards out and I was in the right place to hit it with my right foot into the top left corner of the goal. It became a brand-new ballgame heading into half.”
The path to the school’s 12th PCL title and fifth in seven years suddenly became realistic.
With Father Judge desperately trying to regain the lead, La Salle patiently waited for an opportunity. It came with 30 minutes, 46 seconds left in regulation off the foot of junior Sam Zieger.
“Finn Murray played the ball across to Liam Pottichen, who then one-timed it to Kaden Bono, who took a touch, turned, and slipped it out to me,” Zieger said. “Then I shot first time near post into the bottom corner. I knew that there was still a lot of time left, so I didn’t know it was gonna be the game winner.”
Mostly utilizing a kick-and-run approach, the speedy Crusaders came at La Salle in waves. A few corner kicks amounted to some tense moments, but through it all, senior Ryan Kalup lived up to his premier goaltender status. His aggressive style – leaving the net to snare anything he could get his gloves on – prevented quality chances and fueled his teammates with palpable poise.
In 11 regular season games, Kalup had fostered six shutouts while surrendering only six goals. In the first two rounds in the playoffs, he made two penalty-kick saves in La Salle’s quarterfinal victory over Roman Catholic, and then held Archbishop Ryan to one goal in the semifinals. In the final, he emulated a fortress over the final 48 minutes.
“Judge was pressuring us intensely throughout the second half,” Kalup said. “I had full confidence in my teammates that they would do their job and they trusted that I would do mine. We all trust and believe in each other, and we are successful because of it.”
Echoing several teammates, Kalup described the game’s final whistle as the “best feeling in the world.”
“There weren’t many people who believed in us, especially after going down 2-0,” Kalup said. “But the only people that needed to believe were us, and we did. We kept fighting and got what we wanted. It’s an amazing accomplishment.”
Five days later in the District 12 final, senior CJ Massella and the aforementioned Finn Murray score goals and Kalup etched yet another shutout as La Salle blanked Northeast, 2-0, to advance to Tuesday’s 5:00 contest versus visiting District 1, three-seed West Chester Rustin.
“It was a tough ball game,” La Salle coach Tom McCaffery said. “We controlled the ball, but Northeast had some good counter opportunities that put us under pressure.”
La Salle? Pressure? Piece of cake.
And a PCL championship plaque.