It has been a work in progress, often filled with frustration and disappointment.
So it was understandable why Central York's locker room was loud and boisterous following its tense10-9 victory over Hempfield Thursday.
For the No. 3 seed Panthers (18-1), the District 3 Class 3-A quarterfinal boys' lacrosse triumph was a statement win of sorts. The York-Adams League champions had been to the District 3 playoffs several times, but until Thursday, they had never tasted victory.
“We’re in unchartered waters, so this was obviously a big win and a statement for the program,” Central coach Tom Mayne. “We had confidence that this was something we could do, and we talked all year how we could be a surprise team in the league and districts.”
The victory, which wasn’t secure until Panthers goalie Eric Mirkovich stopped a last-second shot from about15-20 yards out, sends Central into the semifinals, where it will face perennial District 3 power Manheim Township on Tuesday at a site and time to be announced. The top three teams in District 3 3-A will advance to the PIAA Championships. No. 2 seed Manheim Township (18-2) beat No. 10 seed Warwick on Thursday, 10-5.
“We were just trying to keep it as far away from the goal as possible in those final seconds, and I think we forced him to take a tough shot from about 20 yards out,” said Panthers senior TJ Ross, who along with teammate Alex Kilgour led Central with four goals apiece. “We trusted our goalie (Mirkovich), and he came up big.
“Our coach told us that for the last team from Central to win a county championship, that was the end all, that they weren’t as focused (on districts), so I think our attitude has really helped us in that sense.”
After falling behind 2-0, the Panthers regrouped and eventually led 8-3 at halftime. Three goals in the final 53 seconds of the second period (Kilgour, Ross and Drake Little) gave Central the five-goal advantage. Little’s goal came with two seconds remaining on an assist from Ryan Fahs.
A big reason for Central’s first-half success was the face-off work of Kollin Vaught. He won 12 of 13 faceoffs in the opening 24 minutes and finished winning 21 of 23.
“He just has a compact, strong body with quick hands,” Mayne said. "Kollin's just a sledgehammer in there and he’s just a tough matchup for another high school athlete who doesn’t have the same physical prowess. And then he has the ability to win the face off. I think he was a little nervous today … there were some people here watching him, and I hope he’ll be better next game because he’s going to need to be because Township has a nice face-off kid, too.”
Central’s 8-3 lead didn’t last long, however. By the end of the third period, Hempfield had closed the gap to 9-5 and definitely had momentum, as witnessed by its 36-12 advantage in shots in the second half. The Black Knights Cameron Aksu scored two goals in the first 4:02 of the fourth period to make it 9-7 and the Knights made it 9-8 with 2:55 remaining.
The Panthers, however, caught a break seconds later when Jonathan Morrow was penalized 30 seconds for illegal procedure when his stick broke in an entanglement. At the 2:16 mark, Alex Kilgour scored the eventual game-winning goal on an assist from Logan Paluch when No. 6 seed Hempfield (12-7) was a man down because of the penalty.
"We got nervous at the end because we were in a situation we hadn’t been before against a storied program like Hempfield,” Mayne said. “But we held on. We’ll take it anyway we can get it. I was just hoping we would just settle down and play, and I think we did there at the end in the last minute.”
Central’s playoff victory came with high praise from Hempfield coach Jeremy Adams.
"I don’t know his name (Vaught), but he’s a fantastic midfielder and he makes great decisions with the ball," Adams said. “His face-off work tonight was the difference because we did a lot of things well, but it wasn’t enough to make up for what he did with the ball.
“What I saw from Central was a team that was very composed, very smart. So I didn’t see just a bunch of good athletes playing lacrosse. I saw a quality lacrosse team and it’s moving forward and playing against Manheim Township, who I think is the best lacrosse team in the district, but I think Central is up to give them a game.”
Reach George Hammond at firstname.lastname@example.org.