Bill Leahy could sense something was wrong.
The La Salle (Glenside, Pa.) boys' lacrosse coach had just watched his team defeat Archbishop Wood late last season to seemingly bounce back from a loss to Germantown Academy in its previous contest that had ended a 21-game winning streak. Yet Leahy still thought his players were dwelling on the loss and not competing with the right mindset.
What was bugging his squad was the loss of Tyler Knarr, an All-American long-stick midfielder who went down for the year with a torn ACL in his right knee a few days before the game with GA. Knarr was so crucial to winning faceoffs, playing tenacious defense and kick-starting the Explorers' offense that his teammates wondered how they'd survive without him.
"It was definitely a big blow to our team," senior goalie Niko Amato says. "He does so much. He has such a presence. Everyone knows when Tyler walks on the field. We kind of lost our swagger a little bit."
A couple days after the uninspiring win over Archbishop Wood, Leahy aimed to get that
swagger back by having the Explorers go through an ironman competition in the school's weight room. He broke the team into groups of four that competed in 10 grueling events, such as running full speed on a treadmill and holding a 45-pound weight while squatting against a wall.
Leahy designed the events to show his players what they were capable of when the chips appeared to be down. As it turned out, the ironman competition brought the Explorers together and helped them realize they could still do something special even without their star teammate.
"We were forcing them to dig down to
compete," says Leahy, who has coached the team since its inception in 1992.
A few weeks after Leahy's unique team
exercise, La Salle defeated Manheim Township,
7-5, in the Keystone Cup, an event that served as the state championship game before lacrosse became a PIAA-sanctioned sport this year.
The Explorers demonstrated the toughness Leahy was looking for by posting four of their final six wins by two goals or less. They finished the year 31-2 and No. 5 in the STX/Inside Lacrosse national rankings. With Knarr returning this season to an already-loaded squad, La Salle is arguably the nation's top team.
A Georgetown-bound senior, Knarr forms the core of the squad along with fellow senior Division I recruits Amato (Maryland), Tucker Durkin (Johns Hopkins) and Pete Schwartz (undecided between Duke and Harvard at press time), all of whom earned US Lacrosse All-American honors in 2008.
Rated the nation's No. 9 player in the Class of 2009 by Inside Lacrosse, the 6-foot-2, 196-pound Knarr can impact a game in myriad ways.
"He can take the ball from anyone, anywhere," Leahy says. "People run from him. You don't see that every day."
Knarr is so talented that it took two players to fill all his roles last season -- then-junior Derek Bogorowski handled faceoffs and then-junior Tyler Houchins switched to long-pole midfielder. The team redefined itself in Knarr's absence, and
players like Durkin, Amato and Schwartz stepped up when needed.
Durkin, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound defender rated the nation's No. 23 senior by Inside Lacrosse , was in charge of shadowing the opposing team's best player. His defining performance came when he stymied Malvern Prep All-American and current Penn State freshman Matt Mackrides as La Salle won the Eastern Pennsylvania Scholastic Lacrosse Association championship, 4-3.
"That was the most unbelievable performance I've ever seen from a defenseman," Knarr says. "He shut him down. He was absolutely perfect."
If Mackrides or anyone else got past Durkin, the Explorers took comfort in knowing Amato was stationed between the pipes. Last season, Amato posted an impressive 3.63 goals-against average and a 70.6 save percentage to earn Player of the Year honors from Phillylacrosse.com.
Rated the nation's No. 3 goalie recruit by Inside Lacrosse, the 5-foot-8, 185-pound Amato was even better in the clutch, notching eight saves in the win over Malvern Prep and 14 more in the state title game against Manheim Township.
"If our defense ever breaks down, especially in big games, he always comes up with the big save," Durkin says.
"I think he's the best goalie out there," Schwartz adds. "I haven't seen one better."
And last season, there weren't too many better all-around scoring threats than Schwartz. The
5-foot-11, 200-pound midfielder racked up 37 goals and 32 assists on the year and potted nine goals in four EPSLA playoff games, none bigger than one against Haverford School in the semifinals.
Haverford had previously handed La Salle an early-season loss, and with a 6-5 lead late in the game the Fords appeared poised to end the Explorers'
season. But miraculously, Schwartz scored with just 0.8 seconds left to send the game to overtime.
"Pete is probably the biggest competitor," Leahy says. "He knows how to reach back, shoot the ball overhand and bury it into the back of the net when you need it most."
Then-senior Conrad Ridgway, who is now at Penn State, scored the game-winner in the second overtime to lift La Salle to a 7-6 win.
Along with Knarr, Durkin, Amato and Schwartz, the Explorers bring back numerous other standout performers, including senior defender Michael Noone (Lehigh) and senior attackmen Randy Forster (Penn State) and Westy Hopkins. It was Forster who fed Ridgway for the game-winning goal against Haverford, and he notched a team-high three goals in the Keystone Cup.
Talent aside, La Salle owes much of its success to the squad's camaraderie. Players often hang out after school or on the weekends and play video games or grab wings at a local restaurant.
"We're all really close," Durkin says. "You know all your teammates have your back. You have no doubt they're going to put forth the effort, and that's important."
Most of the players will go their separate ways next year, which is why this season means so much to them.
"It's our last year together as a team, and we've been playing together for so long," Knarr says. "We want to leave our mark on high school lacrosse."
Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.