While most observers might have figured a return to the state title game was preordained for the Cardinal Gibbons girls lacrosse team, the Crusaders thought otherwise.
Oh, there was no shortage of talent on the Gibbons roster, but handling the change of role from hunter to hunted is not always an easy.
“It’s harder. Hats off to programs that repeat over and over,” said Gibbons coach Patricia Alexander, whose squad will seek its second straight N.C. High School Athletic Association title at noon Saturday when it meet Charlotte’s Myers Park at WakeMed Soccer Complex in Cary.
The Crusaders routed host Broughton 20-3 in the East final on Tuesday night.
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“You think it’s hard to get there once, and then you’re like ‘How do I get back there again and keep them driven all season? How do I challenge them in practice? How do I keep them to a different standard?’ ” Alexander said. “As a coach, it’s been really challenging for me. I do a lot of work, I find a lot of game film, I find myself really being a student of the game. What I love about these girls is they are ready to meet the challenge and go above.”
It’s a challenge Gibbons has truly met much of the season. The Crusaders are 19-2 on the season and are unbeaten against in-state competition over the past two seasons.
Gibbons won its first state title last season, defeating Lake Norman, 18-14, in the title game to cap a 22-0 season. That victory also avenged a 17-15 defeat in the 2015 title game that represents Gibbons’ last loss to in-state competition.
“We won last year, but just because we won last year, we didn’t feel like we were (automatically) going to win it again this year,” said senior co-captain Jordan Lappin, who scored seven goals in the East Regional victory over Broughton. “So we’ve been really practicing, because a lot of teams are after us, we’re the team they want to beat and we know that. ... When we get on the field, we’re not worried about the score, we’re worried about the little things, groundballs, the 50-50s, staying composed. We do that and the score will take care of itself.”
Alexander made it a point to toughen Gibbons’ schedule this season as it embarked on its state title defense. Among the nine non-conference games were visits to Virginia to face national power St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes and to Georgia to face Milton.
Those out-of-state trips yielded lopsided losses – 15-4 to St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes in March and 18-9 to Milton in April. Those setbacks that might have caused some short-term anguish but over the long haul might have been for the best for the Crusaders.
“Those were great teams, amazing teams that challenged us,” senior tri-captain Cassie New said. “It was fun to see them and learn from playing those teams.”
Added Alexander: “It was good for our girls to see that level and show where we’re trying to get as a program. When we stepped on that field (against St. Stephen’s & St. Agne’s) we saw their warm-up and everyone was taken aback. ... But setting them up against hard opponents helped us for this time of year. These girls have seen it all.”
Broughton, meanwhile, has probably seen enough of Gibbons.
Tuesday’s loss in the East Regional final marked the third time in the last four seasons that the Crusaders have ended the Capitals’ season in the state playoffs, Broughton enduring double-digit losses in 2014 and 2015.
Last season, Broughton lost to Wakefield, 8-7, in an East semifinal game that was called at halftime because of lightning.
“Everyone knows how our season ended last year, and it gave us all the extra motivation we needed for this year,” said Broughton coach Jen Yoder, whose team finished 17-2. “I’m excited for the future; our midfield is so young, we had two sophomores and a freshman starting. ... We have some big shoes to fill on defense and attack, but I like the direction we are headed in.”
Broughton must replace 10 seniors, including senior attackers Carol Seigler (58 goals, 59 assists) and Sydney Russell (53 goals), but among the talented underclassmen is sophomore E.J. Fuller, who scored a pair of goals in the loss to Gibbons.
Yoder was particularly pleased with how her team progressed skill-wise from a year ago.
“I think this year, our transition game has been so key, it has looked so pretty when it’s clicking,” Yoder said. “We’re a pretty smart team and we play smart on attack. That’s different from years past when we relied more on one or two people. This year we are able to pass the ball around. We weren’t a one-on-one team.”