Apex boys lacrosse coach John Hayden has always told his teams that this is the month that matters. When the calendar turns from April to May, the Cougars want to be playing their best.
Though this year’s team is young – goalie Patrick Sasser and attacker Justin Freeman are the only two seniors that start – they’ve carried a tradition of peaking at the right time, which seems to come naturally to the program located in the heart of the “The Peak of Good Living.”
Freeman is the only senior or junior that plays on the attacking end. His 41 goals are supplemented by sophomores Preston Lalicker (48), Chris Cechini (36) and Carter White (24).
“They’re definitely dialed in more. They’re playing a lot better,” Freeman said. “They’re at the level of any older player.”
Tuesday’s 10-9 thriller at previously undefeated Broughton in the third round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A playoffs, where Freeman scored the game-winner with 24.1 seconds left as the Cougars (15-4) rallied from down one with less than two minutes to play, showed just how far the team has come in the window that Hayden wants to see progress.
“We’ve been on a trajectory and we realized that on spring break. We had really good practices, and we played Northwest Guilford (a 10-5 loss), and the kids knew (Northwest is) real good,” Hayden said. “We sort of looked at the stats and the film, and we went toe-to-toe.”
Apex’s steady improvement shows up in almost every second meeting against its tough Southwest Wake Athletic Conference opponents.
After barely holding off Athens Drive 11-10 to open the year, a few weeks later the Cougars swept Athens with a 15-3 win.
The season’s first loss was an 11-7 defeat to Green Hope, but Apex avenged it later with an 11-9 win.
And Hayden drew several positives after his team closed the gap with undefeated conference champ Middle Creek. The first meeting was a 15-7 loss, the second an 11-7 one.
“We’ve just kept ticking upward,” Hayden said. “I started looking at the film, and I told my coaches ‘I don’t like losing, but I feel better about this game than I even did last night.’ We’re playing good teams, but it hits another level on Friday.”
Next up is a showdown with traditional rival Cardinal Gibbons, the reigning 4A champ that has won the last three title games it’s played in. Since the NCHSAA first sanctioned lacrosse in 2010, the two have combined to play in nine title games. The head-to-head winner has reached the title game in each of the last five years. each of the last five.
“We’re definitely prepared for that game and excited for it,” Freeman said.