St. Paul's senior goalie Gunnar Waldt has another tough act to follow this lacrosse season.
Last year, it was returning to the goal for the first time since his middle school days to replace former Crusaders standout Harry Krieger, a mainstay who went on to start as a freshman at Harvard.
This year's task is even tougher.
How can you top turning an early-season concern into one of the team's biggest strengths, leading the Crusaders to the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship?
Waldt, whose competitiveness ranks high on a lengthy list of attributes he brings to the goal, plans to find a way.
"This season, my goal is for us to win another MIAA championship," Waldt said. "Coming off last season, I'm not going to coast and be happy that we won. Not too many teams have been able to win back-to-back MIAA championships, and it's something that I want to do."
And so far, so good.
After a season-opening loss against Pennsylvania-power Haverford, the No. 2 Crusaders have won five straight games, including a 11-2 win over Severn in their league opener on Friday.
Waldt has allowed just 25 goals, while turning back 68 shots with an impressive 15-save performance in an 11-8 win over Georgetown Prep last week the highlight to date.
Every season, the Crusaders play Georgetown Prep as their final tune-up before conference play, and last year's game against the Hoyas was Waldt's breakthrough.
He registered 21 saves with the final one coming in the third overtime. Immediately after it, he flung an outlet pass that quickly reached attackman Pat Powderly at midfield. One pass later, the Crusaders scored to claim a 9-8 win.
"That clear was a frozen rope about 60 yards and it set up the fast-break goal," said senior defenseman Wyatt Land. "After that game, we knew we all had faith in Gunnar and that he was our guy."
If Waldt, a sturdy 5 feet 11 and 240 pounds, became "the guy" following the win against Georgetown, he became the team's leader a little farther down the schedule in the midst of a 7-6 loss to McDonogh. Mostly reserved except when he's constructively barking out instructions during the game, he was quick to speak up during halftime.
"I just felt like I needed to say something to get our motivation back up because we weren't playing very well and we needed to step up to where we could," Waldt said. "I don't know if it helped much, but I felt it needed to be said and it was something I wanted to do."
His teammates and coaches took immediate notice.
"Everybody was speechless, but Gunnar stepped up, got us fired up and showed he meant business. From then on, he's been the leader for us on and off the field," senior midfielder Mac Hall said.
Soon after, coach Rick Brocato named Waldt a captain. It was the latest in a season Brocato has ever added a captain. He knew long before, however, he had a special player in Waldt.
After urging him to return to goal in December (Waldt played two years on defense for the junior varsity team), Brocato told his future starter that the position was wide open with four candidates heading into camp. Waldt didn't take long to make an impression.
"The leadership he demonstrated in the first couple practices last year were off the charts," Brocato said. "He takes the leadership role by command — not demand — and guys want to play hard for him. He's sure of himself in the net and you can always see he's always at ease with the situation around him."
Waldt — quick, agile and fearless — mans the crease looking as much like a fullback as a goalie, and there's a reason — he's a very good one.
He enjoyed a fine football career at St. Paul's, also playing linebacker, and always planned to play that sport in college. Last year, he strongly considered not playing lacrosse at all in the spring — choosing to focus on football and maybe returning to baseball, which he played as a youngster.
But returning to goal posed an intriguing challenge he couldn't pass up.
After recording 219 saves (six shy of the school's all-time single-season record), allowing less than six goals per game, and watching a mob of fellow Cruaders race toward him at the end of the team's 17-7 win over Boys' Latin for the MIAA crown, Waldt couldn't have asked for anything more in his junior season.
"It was an unbelievable feeling. We're in one of the best conferences in the country, and to win it was a dream come true," he said.
At the post-season team dinner, Brocato brought up what he believes was one of the season's most important days.