When Malcolm Lester took over the St. Albans lacrosse program in 1991, one of the first things he heard about was Interstate Athletic Conference power Landon.
"I was told by one of the coaches here, 'Every time you play Landon, you give up two goals because they're Landon,' " Lester said.
Gonzaga second-year coach Dave Doughty, who was an assistant at DeMatha for five years, noticed the same thing. "Plays the kids make every day," he said, "they didn't make against Landon."
The Washington area's most storied and successful lacrosse program, Landon has become a perennial national power thanks to an abundance of talent, an in-school feeder system (even third-graders play the sport) and one of the most respected coaches in the country -- Rob Bordley. But the days when Landon's brown and white uniforms alone caused opponents pregame jitters, dropped passes and late-game collapses might be over.
As more area boys take up the game at earlier ages, coaches say other high schools are assembling teams nearly as talented as Landon's. And the results bear it out -- area teams are catching up.
"There's some more parity," Georgetown Prep Coach Kevin Giblin said. "You've got more kids playing, and there are more than just one or two [good high school] programs."
Last year, Landon's four losses were the most it had suffered in one season since 1984, and its seven combined losses this season and last are more than Landon lost in the previous five combined. Georgetown Prep -- which plays at Landon today at 5 p.m. in the IAC tournament championship game -- beat the Bears twice in 2003 to become the first team other than Landon to ever win the IAC title outright.
"They're still a great team, but I don't see the same mystique," Lester said. "I don't think the players sense it."
Landon's record against Baltimore area teams shows the Bears still have plenty of talent. Against teams from the elite Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association -- widely regarded as home to the best prep lacrosse in the country -- Landon was 3-1 this year. That is the same record the Bears had against MIAA teams in 2000, and Landon went 4-1 against MIAA teams in 1999.
Landon's three losses this season were all one-goal games, and the third-ranked Bears (16-3) are guaranteed at least a share of the title in the ultra-competitive IAC for the 23rd time in 24 years, despite a starting lineup that has just two seniors. But there's no doubt area teams have made inroads. Landon lost to Gonzaga and DeMatha this spring, its first losses ever to Washington Catholic Athletic Conference teams. Landon's two losses to Georgetown Prep last season were as many as it previously had suffered all time against IAC foes.
"I think the talent is spread out more, and it's a little more competitive getting the talent," said DeMatha Coach Dick Long.
Much of this can be attributed to the overall growth of the sport in the area. Youth lacrosse organizations have expanded dramatically in recent years. The Montgomery Youth Lacrosse Association has eight 20-player teams in its Lightning Division (9- and 10-year olds), and its Midget (11-12) and Junior (13-14) divisions each added another 20-player team this year to expand to eight and six teams, respectively. MYLA also created a division for 7- and 8-year-olds this year.
"We were hoping that we'd be able to put together four teams, and we were able to do six, and we had to turn kids away," said Lisa Heaton, the league administrator. "And to get in, they had to attend one of our instructional camps."
MYLA travel teams have also experienced success playing in the competitive Harford County League. "And it's not just Landon kids on these teams," Bullis Coach Mike DelGrande said.
"I think the edge we may have had for years because kids played here at a young age is less now, because the opportunity is available for more kids who play MYLA or Braddock Road or any other youth league," Bordley said.
With youth lacrosse booming, more players arrive at high school with fundamental lacrosse skills -- the ability to throw and catch with both hands, for instance. Most players used to learn those skills in high school.
The players currently in high school lacrosse programs have gained confidence over the past two seasons by either beating Landon or seeing other teams do so. Landon gained a huge edge by beating Georgetown Prep in all 18 meetings before last year. "The Streak," as it was known, infused Landon with confidence, according to Bordley, and filled Georgetown Prep and other teams -- many believed -- with doubt.
But last year the Little Hoyas won a pair of 8-5 games that were not as close as the score indicated, and "The Streak" was no more. Even more debilitating to Landon's aura was the loss to Gonzaga this year. While Prep, for years, had been as talented as the Bears, ranked nationally and competitive with Baltimore powers, Gonzaga had been considered a step below.
"You see DeMatha and Gonzaga beating [Landon] by a goal and Landon squeaking by Bullis by a goal, it gives you confidence," said Lester, whose team lost to the Bears, 8-7, in the IAC semifinals last week. "It's more that we're competing with another great team, rather than capital L-A-N-D-O-N."
In DeMatha's May 4 victory over Landon, the Stags won faceoffs at a 2-to-1 pace and they controlled possession. But down 9-6 in the fourth quarter, Landon scored twice to cut DeMatha's lead to one, then got the ball back for several chances to tie. It was the type of game Landon always seemed to win in past years. But not this time.
"It definitely helps when other teams beat them," DeMatha All-Met Paul Rabil said, "because it makes you think you can do it."
Before this year, three of DeMatha's previous four losses to Landon had come by three goals or less, including one in overtime.
"DeMatha has come close for years and finally did it, so that will obviously change their perspective of us," Bordley said. "I felt the same way when I drove to Baltimore and it seemed like a decade or a decade and a half that I was looking for that first win over Gilman or St. Paul's or McDonogh. I remember taking seemingly good teams to Annapolis and getting pounded by St. Mary's or to Baltimore and getting pounded by Gilman. But once you got that first one, the kids started to believe."
Other private school teams have come close to beating Landon lately -- Bullis and St. Albans both lost one-goal games, while St. Stephen's/St. Agnes lost by two. For the most part, area public school teams have not been able to threaten Landon or Prep -- both the Bears and Little Hoyas went unbeaten against public school teams from Northern Virginia this spring and did not even play Montgomery County teams, which lag behind public school squads from other counties in the area, thanks in large part to the absence of junior varsity teams.
"It's a crime," Bordley said. "I don't know how [Montgomery] county schools will ever close the gap with that hurdle to overcome."
Even without junior varsity, however, Montgomery teams have grown in size and skill. Both Bordley and Giblin, whose teams will meet today in what still is the area's best lacrosse rivalry, said they have been happy to see continued improvement in area programs. Both said they would rather not have to travel to Baltimore to find the best competition.
"I just think the level of lacrosse in the Washington, D.C. area has improved dramatically," DelGrande said. "Whereas in years past there were just a couple teams, now you can look at six or seven programs in this area being very, very good."