Two games left and his team already a lock for a playoff spot?
Inhis 12 years at the helm, St. Mary's boys lacrosse coach Jim Moorhead never has had it so good.
He's also never faced a bigger challenge in trying to keep his Saints poised to win a top seed. Even before yesterday's 10-6 victory over St. Paul's, the Saints (10-2 overall, 6-2 in the Maryland Scholastic Association A Conference) had secured a postseason berth.
"This is very unusual, because normally we don't know whether we're in until the last game of the regular season," said Moorhead.
The Saints entered yesterday's game just one victory behind Division I leader and defending MSA A Conference champion Loyola (6-1), which they still can tie for the division title and a possible top seed with two games remaining.
The Saints play Division II leader Boys' Latin Friday and close with Loyola Tuesday. All three have secured berths.
"Right now, that's what we're playing for," said Moorhead. "The kids know that in this league if you don't play well in your last few regular-season games, you normally don't do well in the playoffs."
Yesterday, however, the Saints looked like champions late in the game and perennial contenders early. They struggled during the first three quarters, falling behind 1-0 in the first, 3-2 early in the second and holding shaky leads of 6-5 and 7-5, respectively, at the half and after the third quarter.
The Saints out-played the Crusaders with halftime advantages in shots (13-7), ground balls (21-12) and face-offs (7-5). But the
Saints' disappointing 3-for-7 performance in man-up penalty situations and their sagging defense helped the Crusaders tiethe game four times and was nearly St. Mary's undoing.
"We've hadsome problems getting started in the first quarter recently, and today we had some opportunities to score and didn't," said Greg Geiger, whose third and final goal of the game came with 19 seconds left in the first half togive the Saints their halftime lead.
Ironically, St. Mary's didn't show championship form until the start of the fourthquarter when midfielder Mike McClellen was called for having an illegal stick -- leaving the Saints a man down for three minutes.
And after being held scoreless in the third, it suddenly looked like easypickings for the Crusaders' quick-moving, pesky offense of Mike Watson, Tim Whiteley and
Rob Bouse. After all, the Crusaders had nailed three goals earlier using an isolation play especially designed forexploiting the Saints' zone defense.
"They needed to come back, so they were shooting from everywhere. They were all over the crease,"said St. Mary's keeper Chris Brown (15 saves), who stopped 10 fourth-quarter shots, including seven from point-blank range. "There wasn'tmuch we could do about them until we got our midfield involved in our close defense."
With the adjustment, Brown came up with two consecutive point-blank blocks in the first 20 seconds of the penalty. That sparked the Saints into a counter-attack that ended with Ryan Kelly collecting a rebound of a David Jones shot -- blocked by St.Paul's keeper Tom Keratses (11 saves) -- and putting away his third of a game-high four goals.
At that point, the Saints led, 8-5, with 9 minutes, 33 seconds left in the game.
"I guess maybe we're better under pressure," said Kelly, whose final unassisted goal gave the Saints a 9-5 lead with 7:18 left.
Kelly assisted on McClellen's goal to give the Saints a 10-5 cushion with 1:11 left.
For St. Mary's, Jones had a goal and an assist and teammate J. D. Gattie also scored.
"We just never really got it going, and then St. Mary's just played better in the second half," said St. Paul's coach Mitch Whiteley. "I think their goalie Chris Brown is the best goalie around -- he just shut the door on us."
And left one wide open for the Saints.
"We can still get the home-field advantage for the first game and that's what we want. But we have to win the rest," said Moorhead.
"And ifwe beat Loyola (a team they lost to earlier, 11-10, in overtime) andthey don't lose again, we'll be tied and have to play off for the top seed. That would be exactly what happened last year. We lost the playoff and had to go to Severn where we lost in the semifinals.
"Wedon't want that to happen again this year."