The 2019 season has been a difficult one for the Elizabethtown Area High School boys lacrosse team. For the majority of the year, the Bears struggled, winning just one game and taking a flurry of losses to some talented teams. However, in the regular season finale, they were able to end things on a high note and go out with a victory.
The team went on the road to Hempfield on Wednesday, May 1, Elizabethtown’s second matchup of the season against the Black Knights. The early parts of the game were extremely defensive, with neither side scoring until Hempfield found the net midway through the first. The Knights would add three goals late in the period as well to go up 4-0.
The second started similarly to first, going back to a defensive contest until Hempfield scored thrice in the middle of the period, holding that 7-0 lead into halftime. The Knights got four goals across the third and tacked on another off a rebound early in the fourth as well.
Sophomore Sam Azzalina finally put the Bears on the board with around seven minutes left. Senior Chad Heisey set up sophomore Cam Poulos for another goal shortly thereafter, followed by a second Azzalina goal. However, Elizabethtown was far behind at that point, eventually leaving with a 12-3 loss.
Seven different players scored for the Knights, with seniors Kohl Wesner and Bobby Griffith tying for the game-high in goals at 3. Junior Grayson Dague scored twice and shared the lead in assists with senior Matt Heuston at 2. Freshman Matt Weist made 13 saves at goalkeeper. Junior Duncan Keller finished with 16 saves for Elizabethtown.
The Bears finished up the year with a home game against Mechanicsburg on Friday, May 3. The Wildcats came up firing, scoring 32 seconds into the game. However, Elizabethtown was up to the challenge, as Azzalina equaled the score just a minute later. When Mechanicsburg took the lead again, sophomore Jayden Feese tied it up with his first goal of the season off an assist from Poulos. The Wildcats were able to score twice late in the first to go up 4-2, however.
Poulos opened up the second with a goal, though Mechanicsburg readily answered to put the score at 5-3, which held all the way into halftime. The Wildcats scored again midway through the third as well to take a 6-3 lead. Elizabethtown was able to cut it to 6-5 after sophomore Sawyer Smith scored off a Poulos assist, followed by a Feese goal via a Heisey assist. Mechanicsburg snuck another one in late, but Poulos quickly responded with a goal of his own, putting it at 7-6 heading into the fourth.
From there, the Bears came up big. Smith fired a goal through off a Poulos pass to tie it up at 7-7 early in the period, and senior Jared Cochran connected with Azzalina just a minute later to give them the lead. Smith scored with just over four minutes left as well to give Elizabethtown a cushion. It was enough; the Bears would go on to win 9-7, finishing the season at 2-16.
“It feels great,” head coach Cassidy Bender said. “For all the work that they’ve gone through and the fight they had, it feels really good to see them come out and finally fight to get the win instead of to get back into the game.”
Smith’s 3 goals led all players, while Poulos finished with 2 goals and 3 assists. Azzalina and Feese scored twice as well. Keller stopped 22 shots in the net, ending the season with 293 saves, by far the most in the Lancaster-Lebanon League.
Senior Zach Ihnat had a team-high 3 goals for Mechanicsburg. Freshman Pierce Hart had 2 assists, while fellow freshman Jake Kociscko had 20 saves.
It was certainly an up-and-down season for Elizabethtown during Bender’s first year as head coach, though there were many things going against the team. With the new two-section alignment in the L-L League, the Bears were forced to face playoff teams Manheim Township (No. 1 in Class 3A for District 3), Hempfield (No. 5 in 3A) and Warwick (No. 11 in 3A) six times in total. Their non-section opponents included South Western (No. 7 in 3A), Ephrata (No. 8 in 3A), Exeter (No. 10 in 3A) and Berks Catholic (No. 6 in 2A).
Elizabethtown had similar schedule woes in 2018, where they also battled against injuries, which forced many sophomores and freshmen to play. While the team’s health was much better this year, the underclassmen still dominated for playing time. The Bears had just four seniors on the roster, and just two (Heisey and team captain Matt Pottgeiser) were regular starters. However, they made an impact all the same.
“We’re losing leadership for sure,” Bender said. “Potts and Chad were definitely that on the offensive side. If they make a mistake, they call themselves out. They also made sure that other kids didn’t make those same mistakes. Those are big shoes to fill going into next year.”
Still, the progression of the underclassmen has to be encouraging for the long term. Azzalina (20 goals, 2 assists), Smith (17 goals, 3 assists) and Poulos (16 goals, 11 assists) formed an effective trio on offense, aided by junior Alex Hartman, who led the team with 12 assists. Keller was a stud in the net, and the Bears got solid play from junior Winston Williams and sophomore Jett Kelly on defense as well.
“Being organized is where they’ve improved,” Bender said. “On offense, they’re making sure we’re all in the right type of motion, cutting through when we need to and setting picks when they need to happen. It’s the same thing on defense. We’re were able to switch in and out between man and zone, as well as pressure the ball when we needed to.”
With a whopping 18 rotation players coming back in 2020, Elizabethtown may be able to get back to relevance, in spite of the daunting task of competing in Section One for another year. However, the Bears still have plenty of work before then. It’ll take a productive offseason to get within reach of the postseason.
“The expectation is always gonna be districts,” Bender said. “You have to have it in the back of your mind. If you don’t think or believe you’re gonna make it, you’re not gonna make it. To make that push, we got to work on stick skills. I’ve already started to put in a plan for the summer with passing and catching drills and conditioning with footwork. If we step that up, we’re gonna be in a lot more games.”