Jef Hewlings is back in a familiar place.
OK, so the new Strath Haven coach hasn’t been in charge of the Panthers before this season. But after stops as the boss at Penncrest and Emmaus, Hewlings took a year off of being a head coach to take care of personal matters and instead was an assistant on Kevin Ellers‘ Ridley staff last year.
This year, he’s taking over the Panthers and hoping to have them break through and join the elite of the Central League…eventually.
“We’ve talked about what it’s going to take to get to that upper echelon of the Central League,” Hewlings said, “and that upper echelon can play with anybody. Our first scrimmage this year was against The Haverford School because that’s what it takes. That’s a great measure of where we stand and where we want to be.”
One of Hewlings’ biggest concerns will be replacing the superb play of All-Delco and All-American goalie Steve Brodeur (Lehigh). Brodeur graduated as the school’s all-time leader in saves and was as valuable a player as any over the past few years, but there’s a more than capable replacement in senior Ted Bergman who waited in the wings for his chance. Bergman saw some time last year when Brodeur was hurt and proved his mettle. Becoming a starter, though, is a whole different animal.
“The goalie’s always going to be a huge part of the team,” Hewlings said. “The bottom line is you’ve got to be good between the pipes. It’s hard to replace a guy like Steve Brodeur, but the kids have been doing a good job of accepting Ted in that position.”
Hewlings also said to expect a lot more man-to-man defense than his predecessor, Dave Waldman, preferred. The latter tended to work out of a zone and it had some good results, but Hewlings figures to be more aggressive both defensively and offensively. Those tasked with keeping shooters away from Bergman include senior captain Dave Ruffini, junior Nolan DiRienzi and senior Kevin Sherry, who moves to close defense from short-stick midfielder.
“I’d say we’re rebuilding at that end, but those guys have athleticism and speed and they’re guys who can get it up and down the field,” Hewlings said. “Early on, we might not look very good because of adjusting to the man-to-man defense, but we’re trying to get out and pressure and get after kids a lot more. We want to create a little bit of chaos on game day.”
That chaos and aggression translates over to the other side of the field, too. Luckily for Hewlings, he’s got a fairly experienced group of players coming back who have scored some big goals for Strath Haven before. Senior Mitch Cross makes the transition from midfield to attack, a move that should spark the offense even more, while juniors Tucker Carney and Will Ohley will be counted upon to keep goalies busy. It’s not just about scoring goals, though.
“We’re going to ride a little bit harder than this team is used to riding,” Hewlings said. “We’re going to pressure when we don’t have the ball and it’s a little bit of a different philosophy. The kids are buying in, but we’re not quite there yet. I think we’ll make some progress and be better at the end of the year than at the beginning of the year.”
With his prior experience in the Central League, Hewlings knows what to expect, especially when his team will routinely face some of the state’s elite teams. Competition, though, is a good thing for the Panthers.
“Central League lacrosse is quality lacrosse and if you want to be one of the best teams, you have to beat some of the best teams,” Hewlings said. “We open up league play in less than two weeks against Garnet Valley. You’ve got to learn to play and compete against those teams.”
Pretty good mantra to live by.
– MATT CHANDIK