AJ Nikolic just wanted a chance.
Almost the entire fourth quarter had been played at the other end of the field Friday night, and the Malvern Prep middie was champing at the bit. Haverford School had erased a four-goal deficit in the Inter-Academic League final at Cabrini University, by monopolizing the ball and creating turnovers in transition.
But as the game wound into overtime, Nikolic, a junior bound for Cornell, just wanted a shot with the ball, a chance to execute the gameplan coach John McEvoy had drawn up for him.
“We ran our play that Coach Mac drew up right at OT, it’s genius that he came up with it,” said Nikolic, the NLF’s No. 28 junior. “The rest is up to me to make a decision – he told me that. I didn’t feel pressure on my front side so I kept going. I was hoping that no one slid, and I just put it in the net at that point.”
Nikolic’s goal, splitting a double team into the slot and planting a shot into the bottom corner, settled a classic duel between the Philadelphia-area powers, an 11-10 win for Malvern Prep to claim their fourth consecutive league title and 13th since 2002.
— NLF (@natlaxfed) May 21, 2022
The unsung hero of an unsung class
Nikolic played the hero, not just with his four goals in helping Malvern (20-3) run up a 10-6 lead that it needed every bit of, but he wasn’t the only one. The play McEvoy drew up only worked if the Friars got the ball, and from the end of the third quarter on, they barely had it.
Haverford School tied the game on Avi Mehl’s (Army) second goal with 2:01 left. Malvern then went down a man with 62 ticks remaining on a slashing call after a loose-ball scrum. That gave Haverford (14-6) a chance to end it, but Ryan DiRocco’s (Army) shot was fought off by Joe Doherty (Big 4 HHH / Franklin & Marshall), then Pat Keenan (Penn State) collected a contested groundball (and got dumped out of bounds for his efforts) to start a clear that wasted the clock.
Haverford School won the overtime faceoff and pushed forward again, but Doherty gobbled up a high howitzer from Mehl ticketed top corner.
Doherty is the embodiment of the ebb and flow of Malvern Prep’s program. The Friars’ Class of 2021 was legendary – 12 Division I players, led by certified blue-chippers Eric Spanos (Maryland), Nick Potemski (Duke), Jake Brownley (Harvard) and Will Peden, Pup Buono and Matt Traynor (all Penn State). Nikolic heads a star-studded ’23 class, with Ryan Falkenstein (Maryland), Roman Buono (Yale) and Keenan (Penn State).
Seniors Get It Done
In between is an unheralded but workmanlike class with three Division I players that nonetheless laid the groundwork for this triumph. And Doherty is the avatar of that.
He saved Malvern Prep time and again, with 14 saves in total. He didn’t just stand up DiRocco and Mehl on either side of the end-of-regulation break, but produced a slew of point-blank saves. Like a stop on Wills Burt on a man-up shot from less than eight yards, Doherty falling on the ball to keep it out. Or a Mehl shot that rattled off Doherty, both posts and out. Or a couple of one-on-one denials of DiRocco on the crease.
Of that senior class, Richmond-bound Joseph Sheridan, probably the most highly recruited player, had two goals and an assist. Liam Timmins (Big 4 HHH / Franklin & Marshall) had two helpers. And Jack Irish (Lafayette) added a goal.
“These guys are my older brothers,” Nikolic said of the Class of 2022. “Since I’ve been on varsity, they’ve been there. The older class, they’re my seniors, and this is all for them. Without them, I couldn’t have done that. They developed me, and while they might not be the most highly recruited compared to some classes, they’re the best class I could ask for to lead me.”
A bright future for Haverford
Haverford isn’t exactly a grizzled squad, though it took it to Malvern late like one. Friday was the end of the road for Mehl, who had two goals and two assists, and Teddy Malone, the Harvard commit with two goals and an assist, all in the second quarter.
But DiRocco, a junior Army commit, had a goal and an assist, and his younger brother, ’24 four-star Aydan DiRocco ’24, adroitly finding the space in the slot to snap off shots.
Both were a big part of rallying from the 10-6 deficit when they looked dead in the water.
“The mindset is, ‘let go, lock in,’” Ryan DiRocco said. “The past is in the past, lock in, make the next play.”
Ben McCarthy was one who did that, the sophomore enduring a tough first half at the hands of Malvern junior Pat Mears (13-for-24) before finding a groove late. McCarthy went 10-for-21, but he had an assist and won the game’s last four draws.
It’s a marker laid down for when the Fords hope to be back next year, with a different result.
“I want everyone to remember how this feels,” Ryan DiRocco said. “The next season starts tomorrow. We’ll be back here next year.”
Malvern Prep – Haverford School Standouts
Avi Mehl ’22, attack, Haverford School / Army
You could argue that Mehl does one thing, and he does it very well. That’s power up the sub-sonic missile that is his lefty shot and fire. But Mehl had shown this postseason that he’s much more than just a shooter. He punished Episcopal Academy in the semifinal with seven goals. Friday, he had two goals and two assists. He’s evolved to understand how to use the space that the threat of his shot creates and he has the hands to capitalize on it with slip passes or quick feeds.
Aydan DiRocco ’24, attack, Haverford School
On this team, the younger DiRocco is not the focal point of anyone’s defense – Malone, Ryan DiRocco, Wills Burt, Mehl all take priority in the matchup. But it says something about the sophomore that he can still impose himself. His four goals speak to a willingness to go into dangerous areas and occasionally take punishment for it. (He also hit the iron twice.) If you’re looking for a young kid to expand his role in the future, that’s a very good starting place.
Ennis Udo ’24, attack, Malvern Prep
Udo is a big kid. He doesn’t have the most diverse array of attacking moves quite yet, and he surely benefits from the attention that Nikolic and the Malvern midfield marksmen draw. But for a sophomore, he’s both A) an excellent finisher, as evidenced by the hat trick on a big stage, and B) very aware of how his strength opens up space for himself and others.
Joe Doherty ’22, goalie, Malvern Prep / Big 4 HHH / Franklin & Marshall
Doherty polished in the full goalie toolkit, clean on clears and able to manage traffic around his crease. Let Nikolic’s endorsement stand: “He’s in my mind the best goalie in the state, maybe one of the best in the country. He flew under the radar for recruiting, so maybe it doesn’t show up on paper. You look through our whole season, the games we won, and the games that we played our best, Doherty is having 15, 14 saves. You saw it right there. He came up big for us, and we won.”
Pat Keenan ’23 defenseman, Malvern Prep (Penn State)
A combined three goals and two assists from Ryan DiRocco and Teddy Malone is no coincidence given Keenan’s work in close defense. He’s not very big, but he’s got a low center of gravity, moves his feet well and is so technically sound, with an economy of movement that makes him so efficient. He’s also lights out on groundballs, which came in handy.
Malvern Prep 11, Haverford School 10, OT
Haverford School 2 3 1 4 0 – 10
Malvern Prep 5 2 3 0 1 – 11
Aydan DiRocco ’24 4 goals
Avi Mehl ’22 (Army) 2 goals, 2 assists
Teddy Malone ’22 (Harvard) 2 goals, assist
Ryan DiRocco ’23 (Army) 1 goal, 1 assist
Brendan Leary ’23 1 goal
Wills Burt ’23 (NLF No. 43 ’23 / Virginia) assist
Ben McCarthy ’24 assist, 10-for-21 faceoffs
Chuck Cacciutti ’22 (Penn) 6 saves
AJ Nikolic ’23 (NLF No. 28 ’23 / Cornell) 4 goals, OT GWG
Ennis Udo ’24 3 goals
Joe Sheridan ’22 (Richmond) 2 goals, assist
Liam Timmins ’22 (Franklin & Marshall) 2 assists
Colin Krause ’22 1 assist
Lucca DiBartolomeo ’24 (NLF No. 6 ’24) 1 goal
Jack Irish ’22 (Lafayette) 1 goal
Pat Mears ’23 13-for-24 faceoffs
Joe Doherty ’22 14 saves