Apex will be playing in its third boys’ lacrosse state championship game in five years this weekend after a 10-2 defeat of Jordan on Tuesday night in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A East final.
How the reigning champion Cougars (19-2) have made it this far has surprisingly little to do with last year’s successes. A season ago the team had senior goal-scorers Derek Sweet and Luke Sieber to go with a bunch of others who wanted nothing more than to send two of the program’s best out as champs.
This year, there is no singular standout, just waves of depth.
Jordan found that out when it tried to take away Apex midfielder Colby Lalicker, a Virginia Military recruit. He was face-guarded for most of the night by Sam Helwig and double-teamed whenever possible.
The Cougars simply let Lalicker stand aside or set screens, taking advantage of the extra attention paid to him by spreading the field and attacking with other players.
“We’ve got this good, very balanced team at every position. I don’t know how you prepare for us. If you stop Colby, we can do other things,” Apex coach John Hayden said. “This is a very deep team, but it’s not a superstar kind of thing.”
Apex emerged as the 4A East champion, but it was hard to call any team the favorite at the postseason’s start. Last season, the Cougars played an underdog role in knocking off Cardinal Gibbons in the third round.
“This year is a little different. There were at least a half-dozen teams in the East that could’ve come out of the East,” Hayden said. “There were a lot of teams who were along the same level, so you needed to be on your game that night to win.”
Giant-killing Jordan entered Tuesday having eliminated East Chapel Hill – a team it had lost twice to during conference play – and Middle Creek – which was a co-conference champion with Apex.
Jordan started the season 1-4 and struggled to get used to life without star midfielder Thomas Schmidt, who tore his ACL during the preseason. But the Falcons (12-7) won 11 of 14 from that point on.
“They did a terrific job of turning everything around; we just ran out of gas in this one,” coach Jamie Sliwa said. “Our offense is based off of dodging and moving the ball backside and when we couldn’t do that, it caused us some issues. I’ve got to give it to coach Hayden, he had a heck of a defensive plan going into it.”
After spending most of the second quarter scoreless, Apex tallied two goals within a 26-second period to push its lead to 5-0 at halftime.
In the second half, Jordan scored back-to-back goals to cut it to 6-2, but Apex responded as it has grown accustomed to doing.
“I thought our defense played well for the most part,” Sliwa said. “We thought if we held them to 10 then we would have a chance. We just couldn’t produce offensively.”
Goalie Tyler Nesbitt shut the door on the Falcons time and again. If there is a similarity from a year ago, it’s that Nesbitt is playing his best during the postseason once again.
“I’d say I’m up there again. Feeling pretty hot,” Nesbitt said. “Last year I didn’t have as much of a part leading the team. … But this year, being a senior, you really have to step up and show the younger kids the way.”
Nesbitt noted defenders Cameron Randall, Kendal Cleary and Joey Copeland as having a big role to play.
Apex’s goals were spread out. Lalicker had two, as did Mike Daum, Chandler Besser and Jakob Harrison. Brendan Farrell added one goal apiece, and Dayton McGough and Jack Hayden had one assist each.
Jordan’s goals were scored by Owen Perrien and Jesse Melton (one assist).
The title game likely will be Friday night at WakeMed Soccer Park, but the NCHSAA will make that announcement Wednesday.