This `Doormat' is stepping up

Expected to finish near the bottom of the highly competitive MIAA A Conference in lacrosse, Severn is proving that a determined team from a small school is capable of doing big things.

May 03, 2006|By LUKE BROADWATER | LUKE BROADWATER,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Severn lacrosse coach John Tucker has led his fair share of top programs and athletes.

While he was coaching at Gilman and Loyola, Tucker guided four teams to Baltimore private schools conference titles - a feat that usually means that team is considered the best high school squad in the country by lacrosse aficionados.

On those teams, he has coached some of the best players to ever step on an area lacrosse field, including recent Princeton standouts Ryan Boyle and Damian Davis at Gilman.

But Tucker, who will retire from coaching at the end of this season, says he's never led a team with as much heart as his current Severn squad.

"In terms of the level of over-achievement and the level of how much they get out of their own ability, this is the best team I've coached," said Tucker, who coached Gilman to three conference titles in the 1990s and Loyola to a Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship in 2001. "This year has been absolutely a blessing to me."

A small school with approximately 160 boys, Severn has exceeded expectations so far this season, posting a 13-7 record, including six wins in eight MIAA A Conference games. What's more, the Admirals have risen to a No. 3 ranking in The Sun's poll.

"We are the underdogs and we always have been," said junior midfielder Nick Elsmo, who leads the Admirals in scoring with 41 goals and 23 assists. "We've always been the team that hasn't been expected to win."

Indeed, Tucker said Severn was considered the "doormat" of the league before the season started.

"If you looked at any kind of preseason ranking, we were at the bottom of the heap," Tucker said. "The talk of the coaches and the papers was that we had no chance of making the playoffs."

Severn entered the season ranked No. 10 in The Sun - behind eight other MIAA A Conference teams. The Admirals entered this week in third place in the 11-team conference.

Along the way, Severn has defeated five teams it was ranked behind to start the season. The Admirals have defeated defending MIAA champion McDonogh, St. Paul's, Mount St. Joseph, Calvert Hall and Severna Park, which were ranked fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth and ninth, respectively, in the preseason poll.

The Admirals thrive on being the underdog.

"All the Baltimore schools get the hype," said senior goalie Brian Phipps, considered one of the best high school players in the country. "Us and Spalding and St. Mary's in Anne Arundel County don't get much publicity and credit. So we play like we're a team out to prove ourselves."

Said Tucker: "We're the smallest by far of any school that we play against. We're a B Conference school in terms of size but we play an A Conference schedule. It's really a difficult thing to do."

Some of the keys to Severn's success this season are the play of its three captains: Elsmo, Phipps and defenseman Garrett Nicholson.

Elsmo, one of the leading scorers in the state who recently orally committed to Virginia, reminds Tucker of the great midfielders of years past, who, instead of specializing in one aspect of the game, excelled at all facets of the sport.

"Elsmo is sort of an old school midfielder," Tucker said. "He's a throwback player. He plays both ends of the field well. He plays the game the way it should be played."

Phipps, picked as Inside Lacrosse Magazine's preseason national high school Goalie of the Year, has not let the Admirals down inside the net. The Maryland recruit has 213 saves this season and has stopped 72 percent of opponents' shots.

"He's the best goalkeeper I've ever coached in high school," Tucker said. "He has tremendously quick hands, and he's a great player outside the goal."

Nicholson is an underrated but extremely important player for Severn, which counts on him for key defensive stands, Tucker said. Nicholson will attend prep school at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire next year.

"He's a guy who never gets any credit but he's our most steady performer," Tucker said. "He's very smart; he directs the defense. He's a very good one-on-one defender."

Assistant coach Drew Larkin called Nicholson a "cerebral" player.

"He's a thinking man's defenseman," Larkin said. "You never have to tell him the same thing twice. He doesn't say much, but he gets the job done."

Even with Severn's surprising success, Larkin thinks the team can play even better.

"This is the best start Severn's had in a number of years," he said. "But as strange as it may sound, I still don't think we've played our best lacrosse yet."

However the season finishes for Severn, players will remember the enthusiasm, energy and expertise that Tucker brought to the program and the unexpected run the team has made so far this season. Knowing their coach is in his final season, the players now have extra motivation to succeed.

"Coach Tucker's been working to get this program to the top tier of the conference," Elsmo said. "We're all on a mission this year to make this a season to remember. Coach Tucker's done a lot for the program. We definitely want to send him out on a good note."

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