Western Albemarle’s lacrosse teams are building character with challenging schedules
By Jennifer A. Sheffield
Western Albemarle High School’s varsity lacrosse squads, boy’s and girls, face rebuilding seasons but still hold hopes for post-season play.
The girls team is rebuilding its entire defensive screen after graduating eight seniors last year, five of whom held off opponents all the way to the state championship game. An equally fresh offense hopes to show that depth is this year’s ticket to dominance.
“It’s a different team without Mattie Shearer and Libby Carbo,” said girls head coach John Warner of the now Division-1 collegiate players. “They set a rare note at Western as go-to players. This is a more diverse team. The skill level is high, and they’re very dedicated to the sport. We are having to work on everything at once, and they are doing a good job. Sophie Lanahan is a senior up front for us, but balance means more distribution, and more players that will be scorers,” Warner said.
In the team’s pre-season scrimmage against E.C. Glass March 11, sophomore attacker Margaret Craytor scored five goals, and freshman defender Jean-nika Vander Westhuzian controlled three ground balls. In its 19-0 shutout against Goochland March 29, freshman Tyler Florin had three assisted goals, and junior Megan Hundley scored her first of the game five minutes before the half.
“It was fun to have so many different goal scorers. We had a lot of assists,” Florin said, “and there was a lot of really good passing out there.”
Regular goalie Kennedy Buntrock started the season injured, but junior Nora Wood is stepping up. In her first game in goal against rival Jefferson-Forest on March 18, an 18-5 victory for WAHS, she made five saves.
Warner said he still wants his team to run hard, make great clears and fast breaks, regardless of the pace of the game. At Jefferson Forest, the girls posted a 6-0 lead in the first nine minutes and led 11-3, at halftime. Craytor and sophomore Reeve Goldstein rallied with four goals apiece, while senior Mallory Greene and freshmen Gigi Hathaway each put away three, and Carter Stokes sunk her first varsity goal.
After their loss to Henrico’s Douglas S. Freeman High School (11-10), their only defeat so far, Warner said, “The girls played a tremendous game against a quality opponent. Their effort is showing a substantial improvement in areas of play we hadn’t covered since the first week’s scrimmage at St. Catherine’s.”
Senior attack Libby Junusik said, “So far, we have a lot of strong players in our underclass, so it is really exciting to have such a bright future.”
Goldstein added, “We just started putting in plays, and they’ve worked out, because I can tell that our team is understanding each other already. I think to make it to state again, we just have to play up to the level that we know we can.”
As for the shift from being sideline cheerleaders to front-line cutters and dependable defenders, Florin said, “It is great that we have a really fun group of girls playing on the field, and it’s nice to be doing the best we can do, so we’ll see how far we go.”
Western’s head coach Mario Washington, the 2021 Central Virginia’s boys lacrosse Coach of the Year, said it was an uphill battle to regain confidence after a 19-6 defeat by St. Anne’s-Belfield in the season opener. “We want to play a challenging schedule, during which we are forced to overcome adversity,” he said. “We certainly faced that challenge, under the lights, against St. Anne’s, and there is a lot that we learned from that game.”
Under Washington’s lead, WAHS finished the regular 2020-2021 season with a 9-2 record and won the Jefferson District. The Warriors also shone in the postseason, reaching the VHSL Class 4 semifinals.
With the graduation of Central Virginia player of the year and U.S.A. Lacrosse All-American Austin Payne, Washington said he is counting on returners and newcomers to pick up scoring. The boys (0-2) began their season with back-up goalie Ben Stevens in for 2021 All-Central Virginia boys lacrosse first-team selection Jack Zayas and many players recovering from illness or injury, including junior captain Tyler Spano, who sat out the 13-3 loss to Freeman March 24. Freeman came into Warrior territory as 2021’s Class 5 Region B Virginia High School League titleholders.
Edward Parrish showed promise posting a three-goal performance in his first game and junior midfielder Ross Basset posted two goals and scooped four ground balls to round up the six Western points versus St. Anne’s. Cole Baglio is also impressing as a new starter with one goal and one assist.
At faceoff circle, Spano won 62-percent of his draws. “Tyler is just getting started as a valued offensive contributor at the midfield,” said Washington. “He is eager to pick up where he left off last year, posting an 81percent faceoff win percentage, and 42 points. Captain Quinn Reilly, a sophomore, is also poised to challenge for the scoring crown after tallying 29 goals and three assists as a freshman.”
On defense, look out for towering 6’8” Grant Karczewski, a junior, some speed from Cecil Rodriguez, a freshman, along with senior Dylan Cosgrove, and junior Jake Fontaine, a lockdown defender who is working back from an early-season injury to his hamstring.
“I believe that we will be challenged with great competition and continue our growth,” said Washington. “Something I learned, from my predecessor, Alex Whitten, was that a team learns more from a tough loss than an easy win. The success of our season depends on the level of output our players decide to offer. My expectation is to improve from the team we were the last time we took the field.”
In the boys’ loss to Freeman, the team possessed the ball well and fought hard, but got off only one shot in the first half. Assistant coach Jake Wilson, a Western alumnus and former Hood College player, said, “We came out hot against St. Anne’s, and had the most shots in the first, but tonight, young guys like Quinn Shifflett got some offensive reps at the end and good looks on the goal that ended up missing wide or dropping.”
Sophomore Finnigan Pulich said the chemistry is still amazing. “I have been with these guys since sixth grade, and knowing what everybody’s move is and being able to trust one another is huge.”
Defenseman Eli Solorno said, “I’m feeling confident that the team is looking better, and I feel like we’re going to have a comeback. We’re all good friends and we’re practicing during spring break, so hopefully we can get everything situated. We just have to move the ball.”
“Our program spends time on risk and reward,” Washington explained, “which prepares all players to understand that no moment is too big for them. Chemistry is a process. The more time you have together, the better, but sometimes you just have to figure out who can get the job done. That requires young players to step into high-pressure roles. We are excited to play a full schedule, but we understand there will be some bumps along the way.”
Lacrosse isn’t the only spring sport showing promise. Boys varsity soccer is off to 5-0-2 start. “We have a young team, but it’s not that inexperienced,” said fifth-year assistant coach Michael Nafziger. “We had a ton of freshmen last year, so everyone has high hopes. Early on, it is about building team culture and the guys have responded well.”
Promising players include sophomores Jamey Williamson and Conner Spano, who’ve both scored goals already this season. According to Nafziger, senior leadership comes from Keaton Gumlock at center back and Sam Vigilante.
The girls soccer team (2-1-1) is the four-time defending state champions. Senior Gabrielle Andreas has committed to Villanova and Taylor Komoski is a candidate for a college spot.
Overall, said WAHS Athletic Director Steve Heon, “We have a lot of teams that have a chance to have a great spring. Our boys tennis team is probably the strongest relative to competition, but baseball is off to a great start, too.”
Heon acknowledged challenges for lacrosse. “Philosophically, we feel that the best way to prepare a team for the postseason is to play good teams, and our coaches have done that. Hopefully, there is a silver lining of understanding what it will take to compete at a higher level later in the year. Until they come across a team that can expose some things, it’s hard to convince kids they need to work on them, so that’s the benefit of playing tougher teams.”