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District 27 – A Pass and a Prayer

Written by Lee Roggenburg on . Posted in .
thanks to Jeff Horwitz for the pictures!   Nothing highlights the good and the bad of Florida lacrosse as much as the first round of district playoffs does. Most districts in this state have a lack of depth. Certainly most of them have some mix of up and down years by their participants.  As far as the state has come we sometimes forget how far we still have to go.  We had 187 teams playing this year on the Boys side, well below 10% of the high schools in the state.  We still play in one combined pool, although the FHSAA has indicated that once we go over 200 varsity teams (some of that 187 is still Club level) they will go to two levels. To be honest, I think that will hurt the sport in the short run.  It will likely be separated by population size with the ability of the school to choose to play above their size level.  Why would a traditional lacrosse program with a small school size opt to play at the lower level?  12 of the Top 21 teams in my last Media poll are public schools.  The public vs private difference continues to close and the feeder programs are starting to fill in the public schools. We could see next year 130 schools opt to play the top level and 70 the bottom level.  What difference will that bring?  A state championship featuring two of the 65th percentile teams?  That’s fine if those teams are part of a 1,000+ pool of playing high schools, like we see in sports that have been around a lot longer but for our pool?  Nope.  Not to pick on them specifically, but LP’s power index has Lyman at 130 and Westminster Christian at 131 . . . will it help either school to win a state championship in lacrosse if they are not really interested in growing the sport at their schools?  Will it help grow the sport in the state? Maybe . . . but I’m not betting money on it. Referee shortages are acute.  Some schools can not have a JV and carry large rosters because of Title IX constraints. One coach last night mentioned about what happens when Tallahassee changes the rules for school attendance, when a voucher system goes into place and players are free to move around.  He brought up the possibility that a kid could play football at one school and legally transfer to another school for lacrosse.  And REPEAT the process the next year.  It’s an issue I haven’t studied yet, but will start to read up on. Plenty of potential chaos on the horizon. And we still are searching to become mature as a sport.   Those who remember last year’s district review of District 22’s first round remember that I don’t cover it the same way as a single game and I am going to continue that format this year. Neither game was competitive.  I was not surprised by one of those results, I was surprised by the other. North Broward Prep and Taravella are also members of District 27 but did not qualify this year.  For those who reflexively complain about private school advantages you might want to ask why NBP isn’t a state power.  There’s no shortage of potential resources there.  I remember that they won a state championship in ice hockey lately; no sport fits better with lacrosse than that. The first game was a matchup of Pine Crest and Cardinal Gibbons and the second featured Stoneman Douglas and Calvary Christian. The combined scores of the two games was 30-2 . . . yuck.   Stoneman Calvary Christian 2016 #1   One feature of the first round of districts is that it is  doubleheader.  Another is that it is one of the few times you can see two teams lose at the same site, with the Final Four semis being the worst since you see FOUR the same day. And since it is the playoffs you see: Teams ending their season Kids ending their careers Parents watching their kids for possibly the last time . . . actually for most of the seniors its’ not possibly but probably Even sometimes coaches coaching their last game. End of the line. And for most, the end comes with a whimper, not a bang. Which is a shame.   Because the early game usually starts in late afternoon the stands tend to be mostly empty.  Yesterday certainly started that way.  When I got there I counted the fans present on my fingers . . . and didn’t finish the second hand. A 5:00 start is not easy on the players either.  It was a very bright sun and due to the time of year the whole game was played as the sun went down, even though the sunset isn’t until after 8:00pm the brightness isn’t something that players face a lot in the regular season. It certainly didn’t help Cardinal Gibbons.   Stoneman Calvary Christian 2016 #2   Cardinal Gibbons was started in 1961 and has approximately 1,450 students in grades 9-12.  It’s located in an interesting area of Ft. Lauderdale, east of Federal Highway and just south of Commercial Blvd.  Just a few blocks away is an interesting area of intracoastal residences and right near where the annual South Florida Boat Parade is held, for those who live down here are familiar with.  When you look at their Wiki page it is surprisingly spartan with information.  A few athletes are named.  The school does list a Florida State Championship in Basketball just last year, so there’s definitely some success there. A few years ago I covered the Calvary Christian-Cardinal Gibbons game and the Gibbons head coach was Doug Britt.  He moved over to Calvary as an assistant and he was replaced by Rudy Williams.  Rudy is from Long Island originally and he played under Richard Speckmann at Nassau Community College.  I asked him before the game how much of Coach Speckmann stuck with him and he replied ‘you’ll be able to hear me from the field’. True.  
The game started with Pine Crest taking advantage of sloppy play.  Those who read my Pine Crest-Ransom Everglades game review would recognize this.  Ransom played a first half that you immediately remove from your memory and the first half last night was a replay.  CG dropped many passes, couldn’t clear, and just generally lived a first half nightmare.  The first goal was so representative . . . the goalie fed an outlet pass about 10 yards up the middle to his wide-open team mate.  Not only did the team mate drop the pass, but the ball was deflected back towards the open goal and right into the hands of PC’s Jeremy Oletsky, who then scored his easiest goal since he learned how to spell.  It was a completely deflating way to open a playoff game. And deflate it did.  It was 5-0 after the first and that was fortunate.  8-0 at the half and Gibbons did not hit the cage with a shot until halfway through the second.  For a team that went 12-2 this year and defeated some nice teams in Cypress Bay and American Heritage-Plantation.  The first time these two teams played it was PC 15-9, hardly the same type of game they played the first time . . . a painful reminder that these are still kids.
  Pine Crest has a lot of lacrosse tradition.  In 2002 they were the state champs.  In 2005 there was a win over a 22-3 Saint Andrews.  In the 2012 playoffs they took SA into the fourth quarter with a one-goal deficit before SA pulled away . . . an SA team that won the title with a 23-2 record that went undefeated in Florida play.  And three years ago hired a Division 3 head coach in George Harris, who also serves as an assistant coach of the Launch.  Two campuses, with the 9-12 located just east of I-95 off Cypress Creek Blvd.  If you could fly a straight line these schools are pretty much the same distance apart as Boca High and Saint Andrews. Coach Harris has quite the pedigree in the sport. Skidmore, Colgate, Cornell and Harvard before Wittenberg.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard him yell from the field.  He’s more subtle than that.  And his teams tend to get better later in the season. The school is a combined 2,500+ between the two campuses and it is an eclectic collection of graduates.  Brandon Knight was the national player of the year in basketball.  Kelsey Grammar is a grad, which surprised me.  Bernadette Castro was known to me up in NY from her sofa commercials.  And I even found Stephen F. Cohen on the list, an author I have familiarity with. The team is pretty young this year as only four seniors are listed.  One of them, David Tescher seems to have been around forever and is one of the truly unique players in the game down here.  Immensely talented but also quite the enigma at times.  Watching him for many games there’s an edge to his game he’d be better off keeping bottled up more.  Think of a cross between an elite talent who can take over a game combined with the on-field demeanor of a South American soccer player.  Soccer fans will understand that.  The good can easily outshine the bad.  When he lets it.  
The second half played out a little differently.  Coach Harris noted to me before the game that one thing CG does well is to always scrap hard no matter what the score was and that certainly showed in the second half.  PC outscored CG 3-2 in the second half and frankly I have to say CG’s sloppy play must have infected PC at halftime in that they also started to exhibit sloppy play.  I don’t keep team statistics in these district semifinal games like I do for the single games but one thing that really stood out was how many ‘failure to advance’ calls that were made.  I am comfortable saying that the number easily exceeded the double digit mark.  Passing continued to be spotty and the game basically came grinding to a halt.  Gibbons scored the first two goals to make it 8-2 and there were a few times where if CG could net a goal or two they might actually make a run at it but the ignition point was never reached. PC’s Chris Dunne scored a late 3rd quarter goal to take the spark away and Oletsky and Noah Dearman cleaned up the mess in the fourth to put it away.  6 PC players scored, with Oletsky going 4G/1A and Dunne 2G/2A to lead the way.  Cole O’Halloran and James Foster scored the goals for CG and the final was 11-2.   I spoke with the refs after the game and they certainly were aware of the rising animosity on the field and had decide to go flag happy late to keep it in check as I was witnessing some late hits away from the ball. After the game I was able to catch up with both coaches.  Coach Williams was kind of stunned at how his team had played.  It’s a young team and sometimes you never know.  It’s a program pointed in the right direction . . . one Broward coach had warned me two years ago to watch out for them in the future.  That coach is on to something.  Coach Harris was more concerned with how the second half played out and had warned his team that an effort like that won’t get them very far in the district finals. As usual, Coach Harris knew how to make his point.  Subtly in voice, loud in message.
  Game 2 is between Stoneman Douglas and Calvary Christian.  In the regular season Stoneman handled them easily and it was frankly a difficult year of transition for head coach Adam Bond.  They went 8-6 but didn’t really have a signature win and his seniors were pretty much on the defensive side of the ball.  It’s a tough task but the future will be brighter. But the inexperience on offense showed last night, as it normally does when you play a very good team. I mentioned above how so often the end comes with a whimper, not a bang. No one was more susceptible to that last night than CC’s star long pole Hunter Ramsay. He could have played and started for ANY team in this state. Those who have read my articles for a few years now know how big a fan I was of Boca’s Harrison Rodermor . . . Hunter is the closest player in how he plays to Harrison I’ve seen the last two years.  He’s that good. According to those I talked to his closest friend is Stoneman’s Tyler Gaffney (if I have this wrong please let me know).  During the game the two of them were matched up as they watched the CC offense down at the other end.  Talking to each other during their down time.  Like watching the coffee break at work. Just another side of how close the lacrosse community can be . . . and how it shows in a way other sports don’t let out. But the only way we are going to see Hunter play again is if his wait list choice comes through . . . and if it does we’ll let you know . . . I’d hate for last night to be the last lacrosse memory he has.   I wrote about Calvary Christian earlier in the year . . . they don’t have a Wiki page.  It’s interesting they don’t, maybe it’s a cultural reason. They are basically two miles from Pine Crest, and it’s a straight shot west down Cypress Creek Road. Coach Bond mentioned to me about how he had to rally the kids before the game because they were exhibiting a lack of confidence going in.  That’s not Coach Bond’s personality.  Remember, he was the first Florida player to play at Johns Hopkins.  You don’t do that if the competitive juices aren’t flaming under the skin.  Play it one minute, one play at a time.  
The game started out favorably for Calvary as they won the opening faceoff with Mr. Ramsay swooping in from the wing, picking up the groundball, and heading towards goal.  He dodged down the right alley, got his hands free, and launched a shot. Clang. Left post. A few more up and down transitions as the teams struggled to get the butterflies out. And then Stoneman’s offense really took over. It’s easy to say when you see the final score that Stoneman’s defense played lights out but really the story of this game was how effective SD’s offense was.  CC rarely got a look after Hunter’s post.  SD’s offense scored 19 goals with 16 assists. 16 assists is something I’ve not witnessed in a game in all the years I’ve watched games down here.
  Coach Ryan Burton is really building something here.  Last year’s great season including the win over SA.  The previous two years have produced an All American LSM in AJ Ferraro and one should have been in Blake Israel and when both graduated there was an assumption they would fall off.  Not too much as it turned out. Six seniors this year, with four playing prominent roles.  Many starters coming back. Only losses were to top teams in my poll and they hold a road win over Gulliver. Serious program evolving.   Stoneman Calvary Christian 2016 #4   The high school is in Parkland off of the Sawgrass.  A mere child for public schools at 26 years old.  Some professional athletes on the alumni list but one name that caught my eye was Cassie Scerbo, who not only has made her name on TV and in movies, but was also an alum of Hip Hop Kidz, a local dance troupe whose owner I know. One complaint I have . . . this is a pretty wealthy community, surely there’s a way to raise the funds to upgrade the field and the scoreboard; call the Jupiter High people and ask them how they did it.  It will work here too.  
The game really ended emotionally for CC when SD went on their run in the first quarter and the quarter ended with SD up 7-0.  In reality, the game was over ten seconds in when the shot hit the post.  It was like a fencing match where the first thrust was easily parried and the competitor knew he had fired his best shot . . . and deep down in his emotions realized this was going to be a long day. To add to this, a stick check penalty left CC down for 3 minutes and by the time the penalty was over it was 11-0.  All four goals on assists that found close in looks. 12 different SD players scored goals and Gaffney and Hunter Bell combined for 11 assists between them. Calvary never stopped trying, it just wasn’t going to be.  8th grade sensation Jason Thomfhorde never got going and rarely saw the ball. And this game also ended with a whimper for CC’s seniors, not a bang.  
At least the crowd size increased as the day went on.  SD celebrated Senior Night at halftime as their previous day was rained out. But even with the numbers increasing there was a lack of energy in the crowd. With one exception. Among the kids of the two teams after the game ended. Many of these kids have grown up together and played summer ball together. The score was not mentioned on the field afterwards. But encouraging words were. The teams gathered together on the field in one circle. Coach Burton spoke to the assembled with praise for all A Calvary student led a prayer And a Stoneman player led the breakdown   And on the way to the parking lot, after saying goodbye to Hunter and his family I silently said a little prayer about a wait list. Hope it works.