ASTON — The approach for Dylan Protesto is about as simple and quick as many of his dominating takeaways from the faceoff "X" during games.
There's preparation, for sure. There's a modicum of scouting and planning, parsing game films to detect the tendencies and preferences of his adversaries. But in the end for Penncrest's senior faceoff man, there's one simple edict: To go out and do what he's arguably the best in Pennsylvania at doing.
"I just kind of do my own thing,' Protesto offered at practice Wednesday afternoon at Neumann University.
That thing is to win faceoffs at an exceptional rate, far and away the best in Delaware County and one of the best in the state. And Protesto's proficiency on draws has been an invaluable — arguably, the most irreplaceable — facet of Penncrest's run to Saturday's PIAA Championship game, where they'll face Avon Grove.
Protesto's secret is hours and hours of practice, honing the many minute vagaries that make the difference between an average faceoff guy and an extraordinary one.
"When I'm just at home, I'll just be doing faceoffs in my room," Protesto said. "I've just got a bunch of whistle files on my phone, so I'll just do hundreds of reps upstairs."
The practice had undoubtedly paid off the for the University of Hartford signee, who has raised his game as the occasions have gotten bigger. He went 17-for-21 in the PIAA semifinal win over Mount Lebanon Tuesday. Against La Salle's highly-touted freshman Anthony Giuliani in the quarters, Protesto was just 8-for-14, but he won all five draws in the fourth quarter, one in which the Lions outscored the Explorers, 3-1, en route to a 6-5 win.
Beyond the numbers, there's a demoralizing aspect to the manner in which he often claims possession. In many instances, the only hint that play has restarted is a whisper of a whistle and the sight of Protesto dashing down the field with a clean win before his opponent has so much as moved, creating an instantaneous and fleeting man-power advantage that the Penncrest's precision passing has turned into goals time and again.
Protesto's ability forces other teams to change their schemes, such as in the District One fifth-place game when Upper Dublin moved All-American sophomore defenseman Jack Rapine to the "X," almost conceding the faceoffs and just hoping to contain Protesto's marauding runs toward the cage. It didn't work, with Protesto's hegemony at the X reaching 15-for-17 as the Lions earned the 8-5 win and District One's final berth in the state tournament.
If Protesto was just an elite FOGO, that would be one thing. But Protesto largely ignores the second part of that acronym — "face off, get off." Where some faceoff men are lucky to get a goal here or there in the event of a total defensive breakdown, Protesto has tallied 27 times this season to go with 11 assists, ranking him as the Lions' second-most prolific midfielder and fifth on the team in scoring.
His contributions aren't limited to the immediate aftermath of faceoffs, either. For a Penncrest team that only runs six to eight midfielders with regularity, Protesto is a constant fixture on both the offensive and defensive ends. He's deceptively quick, nearly impossible to dispossess and provides the blend of athleticism and positional know-how to be a solid defensive middie.
"I just like to play, so I don't really like to get off the field," he said. "I think scoring is a lot of fun."
The nuances to his game took time to develop. Among the most obvious flaws in his plan of attack relates to his stick, specifically the tremendous forces at play at the midfield wrestling match that can twist and distort his stick head into crazy contortions. A stick that is conducive to winning faceoffs — specifically one pinched in to pluck a loose ball clean off the turf — isn't exactly tuned to the ideal specifications of an out-and-out goal scorer.
But Protesto has made it work, admittedly going through a slew of substandard gear before finding what he needs to be the catalyst to the Penncrest offense.
In Tuesday's semifinal win over Mount Lebanon, that spark was as evident as ever. After a first quarter where an unconvincing Penncrest squad led by a still tenuous 3-2 margin, Protesto turned up his game. The result was five goals over a three-minute, 51-second span of the second stanza that turned a 3-2 nail-biter into an 8-3 coasting.
"We get in these slumps, it feels like, in the beginning of games, because teams will get those one goal or two goals," explained Ethan Trusty, one of Protesto's primary midfield running mates in transition. "And we'll be on the sidelines thinking like, we just need that one goal to get us going. And once we get that one goal, we start rolling them in."
In the fourth quarter, with the result largely in hand, four straight Protesto faceoff wins translated into four goals in 3:45, a 15-5 lead and a trip to Hershey.
Protesto isn't one to eagerly tout his accomplishments, preferring to let his actions do the talking. But the praise lavished on him by teammates tells the story. The fact that a guy doing the dirty work is able to stand out on a team full of gaudy-numbered attackers — among Will Manganiello's 100-point season, among Alex Bonnett's 14 playoff points, among Robert Logan's 37 goals from midfield — is a testament to his stature on a team 48 minutes from a state title.
"He's very valuable," Trusty said. "I honestly don't know where we'd be without him. With him winning those faceoffs in there, it's such an extra advantage."