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Lax Lowdown: Pingree vs. the Prep: Who'd win a hypothetical clash of the North Shore's top teams?

Salem News - 5/28/2019

May 28-- May 28--Sports is a perfect place to play the proverbial "What If?" game.

What if Mike Eruzione had been cut from the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team? What if Doug Flutie got sacked before he threw that Hail Mary pass to Gerard Phelan? What if the Red Sox had never signed David Ortiz, or the Patriots had never drafted Tom Brady? What if Kendrick Perkins was healthy enough to play in Game 7 of 2010 for the Celtics?

On and on and on ... be it at the professional, college or high school level of athletics, you can play this game forever.

So, hypothetically speaking ...

What if North Shore boys lacrosse kingpins St. John's Prep and Pingree met in an actual game? Who would come out on top?

"Oh boy ... this will definitely get people talking," said Kevin Tersolo, head coach of the five-time McCoy Cup champion Pingree Highlanders, who finished their season last Friday with an outstanding 19-2 record.

"This is awesome!," added his coaching counterpart, St. John's Prep (15-3) bench boss John Pynchon, his unbeaten Catholic Conference champions winners of eight straight and 13 of their last 14 contests..

Can you imagine what this would be like?

Pingree, which recently captured its fifth consecutive New England prep small school crown in dominating fashion, going up against the acknowledged state power that is St. John's Prep athletics and its lacrosse team, which might be the school's best and deepest since the 2010 Eagles' squad that won the Division 1 state title.

Comparing schools and programs playing under the same guidelines can be difficult enough. By sheer size alone, St. John's Prep -- with an enrollment of nearly 1,500 male students -- dwarfs any other local school. They also play Division 1 athletics in every sport under Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) guidelines, and in doing so play at the highest level of competition in every postseason they enter. That alone makes it unfair to compare them against most other schools locally, particularly public schools with male/female enrollments that draw from just one city or regional area.

There are exceptions, of course -- Peabody, Danvers, Masconomet and Beverly, to name a few, will take on the Eagles in various athletic events, with mixed success. But by and large, the Eagles are the outlier locally.

Pingree is a bit different, however. The Highlanders are decidedly smaller than St. John's Prep -- there are approximately 350 co-ed students at the South Hamilton school -- but, in this case like their speculative counterparts, they draw from all over the North Shore and beyond. Athletes can also be recruited to the Highlanders, and the success of Tersolo's program has standout lacrosse players from all over gravitating towards the school.

In reality, this is one of the few 'what if' scenarios where the playing field would be equal, or a close facsimile of it.

So ... what would happen if they played?

"Having zero common opponents to compare against makes this really challenging," acknowledged Pynchon. "Some of the things I think we have advantages in over many teams in the MIAA, such as scouting and game prep, goes out the window if you can't prepare."

Let's try to break it down, then.

Pingree offense vs. Prep defense

The Highlanders lit up scoreboards across New England, ripping the twine an amazing 276 times (an average of 14.52 goals a contest) and called the dogs off in many of those when the outcome had been long decided.

Three attackmen bound for Division 1 college programs make trying to stop the Highlanders a daunting task. Junior Johnny Crehan had 13 goals in two playoff games and finished the year with 63 goals, 24 assists and 87 points, giving him an even 200 points for his career. He is exploring the Division 1 options that have been presented to him. Classmate Brendan Driscoll had 34-40-74 totals and has verbally committed to join Providence College in the fall of 2020. And senior captain Tucker Spencer, who'll be playing for the Vermont Catamounts this time next year, poured in 55 goals to go with 17 assists and graduates with 167-50-217 totals.

"All three of them can hurt a defense in numerous ways," said Tersolo. "One (Driscoll) is an explosive dodger and defenders struggle to run with him; the second (Crehan) is a bull with a 97 MPH outside shot and is a phenomenal inside finisher; and the only way to describe the third guy (Spencer) is that he's a sniper. He doesn't need an angle to shoot; he just needs a spot.

"And oh yeah, two of them are returning next year."

The well doesn't run dry there, either; Colton Fahey (25 goals, 20 assists), David Taylor (18-28-46), Hazen Pike (22 goals), Hogan Rose (11-11-22), youngster Hudson Durant (11-7-18) and Will Halecki (16 goals) are also dangerous marksmen. In all, 19 players had goals for Pingree this spring and 21 had at least a point.

"Our midfield has aggressive dodgers that can shoot and feed, and we're loaded with depth. Plus, we return every midfielder next year," Tersolo noted.

So how could the Eagles defend this potent trio? Certainly, they'd lean on shutdown guys such as Dan DeLaus, captain Drew Leahy, Caelen Sawyer, sophomore Michael Ayers, Tripp Clark, Harry Trout IV, Ben Shaw, Matt Crowley and long stick middie Jackson Klein, among others, to do so. They aren't allowing a mere six goals against per game for nothing, after all.

"Pingree would be hard to slow down," admitted Pynchon, "so we'd probably show a good mix between our three base defenses to give them different looks each possession. Without any scouting, I think we could use our aggressive ride to our advantage."

Prep offense vs. Pingree defense

St. John's Prep does not have the same firepower as Pingree ... but don't be foolish enough to deduce they can't score in bunches. The Eagles' strength offensively is in the sum of its parts, where 10 players have double-digit snipes and an amazing 26 players on the roster have hit the back of the net at least once.

With 228 total goals, St. John's has relied on seniors Jake Surette (22 goals, 38 assists), Pat Keefe (40-14-54), Michael Ott (32-16-48) and Michael Kelly (23-16-39) to produce more than half of those. But balance runs throughout the lineup, with Luke Brennan (17-12-29), Brian Souza (14-6-20), Wes Rockett (12-4-16), DeLaus (11 goals), Craig Yannone (13 goals) and Josiah Brown (7-7-14) all happy to burn opposing defenders.

"We present problems for most defenses because all nine guys we run can dodge to score," said Pynchon. "If a team has 2-3 great cover guys, we can manipulate those matchups and let any one of our offensive guys generate offense.

"Individually, it would be a great matchup to see Keefe go against (Pingree star defenseman Grant) Latimer. From what I hear he's big and physical, so it would be a tough matchup."

The Providence-bound Latimer is a nightmare for foes who dare venture into his end of the field. Defensive mates such as Chris DeBlasio, Kyle McCarthy, Jake Candelino, long stick middie Henry Cabot, and short stick defensive middies Kenny Offner and Tim Dowd, combine to form a near-impenetrable unit, one that surrendered just 105 goals all season (a shade over 5 per game).

"We have defenders that can cover any type of attackman," said Tersolo. "They range from 6-foot-4, lean and fast to 6-foot-3, quick and aggressive. They all play with the same characteristics: smart, aggressive and disciplined. And they do not over commit."

Goalies, faceoffs and intangibles

Neither team has to worry about its last line of defense. St. John's Prep relies on the steady Alex Kreher in goal, with Liam Stacy backing him up. When University of Hartford bound Charlie Nowell went out of the lineup late in the season for Pingree, Clayton Smith stepped right in and the team didn't miss a beat.

The faceoff battle would be highly interesting. The Prep's Yannone, who has emerged victorious in better than two-thirds of the draws he's taken (160-of-228) this season, is generally regarded as one of the state's best at his craft. "I think Yannone at the faceoff X would give us an edge in possessions, which would be key to controlling the game," said Pynchon.

But Pingree sophomore Billy Stevens, who turned into an absolute monster in the middle as the season wore on (winning over 80 percent of his battles in some games), would prove to be a formidable foe.

"Our FOGO is an athlete. If he doesn't win the draw (cleanly), he'll still have a 70 percent chance of winning it because he's a bully when the ball is on the ground," countered Tersolo.

Both coaches salivated at the opportunity to test their best against the North Shore's 'other' indomitable club. They also have a tremendous amount of respect for the each other and the programs they've built.

"Kevin's done a great job building the Pingree program," said Pynchon. "They have a ton of talented players and a proven track record of winning."

"John is a great head coach and has a great coaching staff," added Tersolo. "I have nothing but respect for John and St. John's Prep. It's nice to have two private schools doing so well locally; it gives players two great options for private school."

Let them play

How about a final say from both coaches pitching the virtues of their own program?

"Our guys have to be prepared mentally and physically for every game with the schedule that we play," said Tersolo. "With teams like Middlesex, Thayer Academy, Brooks, Moses Brown, Portsmouth Abbey and all of the post-graduate schools that we face -- Phillips Exeter, Brewster Academy, New Hampton, Proctor Academy, Cushing Academy -- there are no days off."

"Overall, I think our advantages are in our overall schedule -- the majority of our games are against some of the best teams in the MIAA. That game experience is key," said Pynchon. "We also probably have an advantage in depth: our ability to run two lines of middies plus a line of senior D-mids allows us to stay fresh and makes matchups hard to dictate. Having depth also creates competitive practices, which we really use to build upon. Our goal is to make practice harder, mentally and physically, than the games, and it's really hard to recreate that with a shorter roster.

"In the end, though, all that goes out the window when you line up your 10 vs. their 10 -- so it's really hard to say who comes out on top."

Pynchon had perhaps the best idea to end all speculation about this mythical matchup.

"Why not just make this happen this week?," he asked. "We play them and charge $10 at the gate, with all proceeds going to the Pete Frates No. 3 Fund. Their season is over and our playoffs start next week, so ... "

North Shore lacrosse are left to use their imaginations to envision how such a clash would actually transpire. -- Lax Lowdown, a column on North Shore high school boys lacrosse, appears each Tuesday during the spring sports season in The Salem News. Contact Executive Sports Editor Phil Stacey at pstacey@salemnews.com and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN

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(c)2019 The Salem News (Beverly, Mass.)

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