Jef Hewlings knows what he has and he likes his chances.
Hewlings, the Strath Haven lacrosse coach for the last six seasons, has led the no-panic Panthers to the boys’ PIAA Class 2A championship for the first time in program history.
On Saturday, at 4:30 p.m. at West Chester East, Strath Haven will face District 1 champion Bishop Shanahan for the state title.
Its penchant for late-game poise has taught Hewlings something important about his group. Perhaps more importantly, it has also kept its championship hopes alive.
“I think what I learned is these guys think anything is possible,” Hewlings said.
With their season on the brink in the district playback game on May 24, the Panthers trailed Radnor, 7-1, entering the fourth quarter before prevailing, 9-8, in double overtime.
Last week in the semifinals against District 7 Mars, Strath Haven (19-5) again fell behind early before pulling out a 12-11 victory.
“I’ve felt like this team was long on leadership,” Hewlings said. “Senior leaderships means a lot and there were times during this season that without that leadership we probably wouldn’t have survived.”
In the boys’ 3A finale, La Salle takes on District 3’s Manheim Township at 2:30 p.m. at West Chester East.
Seniors Jeff Conner, who will play at the University of Virginia, and Ryan Morris, a Monmouth commit, are the team’s official captains.
The Panthers, however, have 13 seniors total, including goaltender Will Brake, who splits time with junior Vincey Palermo.
Palermo is a 5-foot-4, 130-pounder who actually earned the starting spot late last year during the playoffs. This year, Hewlings decided to start games with Brake and switch to Palermo in the second half.
Palermo and Brake, like most of the Panthers, have played together since middle school and have made the transition well.
“I get to watch their shooters and their offense for the first half,” said Palermo, whose fraternal twin, Nicky, is an attacker. “And I also get to see what’s going bad or well for our defense.”
Brake committed to play at Dartmouth, but instead decided to pursue a possible military career and will join an ROTC program at William and Mary.
Sacrificing time for the betterment of the team is the kind of leadership Hewlings requested of his seniors at a preseason dinner.
“We talked to them and said, ‘You have two captains but there’s an awful lot of leadership in this room,’” Hewlings said. “We needed everybody to step up at the right time, and they’ve done that.”
They will need to do it again against Bishop Shanahan (21-1), which thumped two-time defending state champ Springfield Delco to claim its first district crown.
The Eagles also beat the Panthers, 9-6, in the district semifinals despite Strath Haven leading, 5-3, at halftime.
“They’re a tough matchup,” Hewlings said. “They’re a really good team and well-deserving of a state championship, and I feel like with what we’ve gone through this year so are we.”