In lacrosse, the phrase “grow the game” is often used regarding the sport’s attempt to gain popularity and interest.
The game has reached Hillsborough.
A moment 14 years in the making, Cedar Ridge is off to the N.C. High School Athletic Association 1A/2A/3A boys lacrosse state championship game.
The Red Wolves secured their spot in this weekend’s title game by beating fellow county school and conference-rival Chapel Hill 11-8 Tuesday in the East regional final.
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With a senior-laden team, the a sense of self-belief developed at Cedar Ridge when it came up just short against eventual state runner-up Carrboro in last year’s third round.
Knowing they had another run in them, this year’s Red Wolves came back with a chip on their shoulder and a desire to make the most of the opportunities that came their way.
So far, they have. Cedar Ridge went a perfect 8-0 in conference play, securing that mark by beating Chapel Hill on the road in its final regular season game.
Through three postseason games, the Red Wolves have outscored their opponents 40-23, getting revenge against Carrboro and holding off Chapel Hill once more in the process. Next up is Weddington High, located about 30 minutes southeast of Charlotte. The two will play at 7:30 p.m. Friday at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary.
Now, they have their shot at bettering what’s already been the best season in school history with an even bigger win.
“They bought into the work required to win, to be successful” said Patrick Kavanaugh, the program’s only head coach. “They bought into the work and they’re leaving people behind it – the younger guys – to do the same thing.”
Against Chapel Hill on Tuesday, Cedar Ridge showed why wins have been far more common than losses this season.
In a competitive game, the difference came down to the Red Wolves doing a little bit of everything well. After a slow start, they buckled down on defense, which got the transition game going, showcasing their team speed.
Eventually, midfielder Jack Widman, Cedar Ridge’s leading scorer on the season, got going, scoring each of his three goals in the fourth quarter. Even when a three-goal advantage suddenly evaporated, defender and co-captain Cole Bullard restored order with a coast-to-coast goal.
“We just play as a team,” attacker Sean Tobin, who finished with three scores, said. “We love each other. We’re always moving the ball to each other, sharing the love. That’s how you get wins.”
It’s that togetherness and cohesiveness, in addition to an innate spirit of competitiveness, that has gotten Cedar Ridge to where it is right now, according to Kavanaugh.
“We compete,” he said. “Even the four games we lost, we lost by one goal – every single one. We had chances to win every single game we’ve been in this year. We don’t necessarily win them all, but we’ve learned how to compete.”
A varsity player since his freshman year, Widman has seen the program continue to grow during his playing career. When he was a sophomore, Cedar Ridge didn’t have enough players to field a JV team.
That’s no longer the case and now he’s hoping this year’s success will result in even more in the years to come.
“It’s a statement made,” he said. “Last year we were very strong, but this year after pulling off that conference championship repeat and taking down Carrboro in the quarterfinals unlike last year, I think we’ve solidified ourselves as the number one team in the area in the 3A.”
Wearing a red button-up shirt paired with a tie with wolves on it, Kavanaugh became emotional when reflecting on his program’s progression throughout the years.
When he coached his first game at the school back in 2003, Cedar Ridge lost to Apex 24-0. The next time he takes the sideline his players will be battling for a state championship.
“I’m in awe,” he said. “Just in awe of the whole thing.”
For Chapel Hill, the loss was a disappointing end to what was a mostly successful year.
The Tigers finished with a winning record and earned a victory against rival East Chapel Hill, but just couldn’t quite find a way to beat Cedar Ridge this season.
Chapel Hill was powered offensively by the trio of Sean Voelkel, Jack Grubbs and Duncan Tart, who each played big roles in helping the Tigers average 11 goals per game.
The season was the last at the helm for coach Brent Voelkel, who is turning the job over to Jacob Manning, his current assistant.
“It hurts a lot,” Brent Voelkel said. “It’s my last year of coaching for these guys; we have a long history of getting to the championship and being successful. It would have been nice to get back for the seniors.”