With just five seniors and several sophomore and freshman starters, W.T. Woodson boys' lacrosse Coach John Fitzgerald knew his team might start slowly -- especially considering its brutal early-season schedule.
The Cavaliers did, losing four of their first five games to Robinson, Westfield and Interstate Athletic Conference powers Landon and Bullis. But there was reason for hope. None of the losses were blowouts, and the Bullis and Westfield contests were decided by one goal each.
"I think, as a coach, you have to put the proper spin on those games," said Fitzgerald, in his 18th year with the Cavaliers. "If we play someone and beat them by 20 goals, that's kind of fool's gold. It doesn't give a realistic reading of how good you are. But by going against teams like Landon and Bullis, you identify deficient areas, learn what to work on and become humble."
Since the back-to-back losses to Bullis and Landon, two of the area's top programs, the Cavaliers have won six games in a row, including an 11-5 victory over Madison on Saturday that wrapped up the top seed in the Virginia AAA Liberty District tournament. Woodson finished its district schedule unbeaten for the 10th consecutive season.
"I think we turned out to be prophets, because now we're a much better team," Fitzgerald said. "We had to go through those growing pains because we were a young team to begin with."
Junior attackman Aaron Solomon led the Cavaliers with six goals and two assists Saturday to finish the regular season with a team-high 51 points (32 goals, 19 assists).
"He has twice as many goals as anyone in our district," Fitzgerald said. "He's really an impact player. He's very good with the ball, very powerful, he can dodge, go through the double teams. He's the foundation of our offense."
Solomon, who had 63 points last year, also has become an effective feeder, setting up open teammates when opposing defenses slide to him early. Among the players who have benefited are sophomore Joey DiCerbo (14 goals, three assists), senior Sean Cassidy (15 goals, nine assists) and sophomore Brandon Butler (11 goals, four assists). The Cavaliers also have gotten large contributions from Delaware-bound all-Northern Region goalie Warren Mayberry (.630 save percentage), Haverford-bound defender Joel Censer (leads team in ground balls) and Solomon's brother, Mikey, who will play for UMBC next year. Mikey Solomon has been critical on faceoffs and runs the Cavaliers' offense, Fitzgerald said.
There can be no doubts about the toughness of South Lakes goalkeeper Daniel Thayer.
Last week, in the Seahawks' loss to Langley, Thayer was hit in the throat by a ball. Referees stopped the game to make sure Thayer was all right, but when South Lakes Coach Dan Ambrose came on the field, Thayer waved him off.
"He refused to come out of the game," South Lakes defensive coordinator Matt Blamey said. "One day after practice, he had welts on both his knees and shins. He's a ball-stopper. He's real aggressive at the ball."
Thayer stayed in the game and went on to break the Seahawks' single-season record for saves. He stopped 199 shots this season, topping a record that had stood since 1997. Perhaps even more impressive than the number of shots he stopped was the sheer number of shots he faced. On an inexperienced South Lakes squad that finished the season 3-8, Thayer saw 304 shots -- an "astronomical" number, Blamey said.
"The number one goalie in [the NCAA's] Division I faced about 206 shots," Blamey said. "And that was in 11 games."
But Thayer never shied away from the challenge nor lost his aggressive style. Six times in the Seahawks' game with McLean, he stuffed shots of players who were wheeling around the crease.
Thayer, a team captain who has started since his sophomore year and recently received second-team all-Liberty District honors, will play for Mary Washington next year.
Bruins On a Roll
Like W.T. Woodson, Lake Braddock has been hot since struggling against elite competition early in the season.
The Bruins have won five straight games since losing five of their first six. Lake Braddock lost to Bullis and St. Albans of the IAC, Mount St. Joseph of the elite Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association, Robinson (by two goals) and defending Virginia AAA champion Oakton (by one goal.)
Lake Braddock then won its next five games by an average of 7.6 goals. The Bruins faced West Potomac, a team they beat 16-5 in their regular season finale, on Tuesday in the first round of the Virginia AAA Patriot District tournament. The game finished too late to be included in this edition. . . .
Langley finished its regular season schedule 7-4, but the Saxons were a just a few plays away from 10-1. Langley lost to Westfield by a goal, to Fairfax by a goal and to W.T. Woodson in double overtime.