The best record of any Chatham County boys lacrosse team last spring belonged to Northwood, which finished the year 11-6 overall — the team’s best season since 2018 — after reaching the second round of the state playoffs.
The Chargers finished second in the Central/Mid-Carolina conference behind Orange with a 9-3 league record and entered the 1A/2A/3A tournament as the No. 8 seed in the east region. After a first-round bye, Northwood fell to conference opponent Williams, 12-10, in the second round.
Over the offseason, the Chargers only graduated three seniors, and plenty of talent is returning to the field this spring. Leading the way will be the senior trio of Taylor Laberge, Will Smith and Jason Walden, who combined for 145 goals and 37 assists to carry Northwood last season.
Chargers head coach Randy Cox has a 30-18 record in three seasons in Pittsboro. Earlier this week, Cox caught up with the News + Record to discuss the upcoming season, his talented senior class and Northwood’s impending move to 2A next school year.
How pumped are you for the upcoming season, given what your team was able to accomplish last spring?
RANDY COX: We are extremely excited. We had a successful season last season. We’ve got essentially five all-conference, all-region, all-state players coming back this year, which is nice for us. We’re adding hopefully a couple of young men who can contribute. We have a very good goalie coming in and some players who have played the game already who should come in with some pretty good skills. You take that and you add that to an already seasoned, experienced group of upperclassmen, and I think that lends itself to having success. But the boys have to be ready. That’s for sure. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you’re not mentally prepared and you’re not in shape and physically ready to take on the competition, you’ll have limited success. That’s really where our focus is.
You have a really strong senior class, led by the trio of Taylor Laberge, Will Smith and Jason Walden. How have you seen those three players grow together over the past few years, and what’s the next step for them?
I think (the next step) is just being a more unified group and really knowing where the other ones are going to be on the field. Playing together is where I see them really impacting this year’s team. From being a young athlete, your first time handling a stick, to the point they are now with understanding the game, I think their game IQ is pretty solid. They’re going to need to bring the younger freshmen and sophomores that are now entering the program, they’re going to need to bring them along. I have always tried to work on, No. 1, the game IQ, No. 2, their skills, but No. 3 is their leadership. We’re going to be looking to them for leadership, and there are going to be some challenges along the way. There’s going to be so some games where the competition is going to be pretty solid. We have a great schedule. I think we’re at 17 games right now. It’s a pretty solid schedule. I think Northwood is a fairly respected program in our region, so I think people want to beat us. We’re going to have to be prepared for every game. I see them as players who are going to have really lead the team.
Who are a few of the younger players, specifically, you would like to highlight?
There’s (freshman) James Flanagan in the goal. Obviously he’s going to have to go ahead and perform. I don’t believe we’re going to have the goalie that we had last year that’s been part of the program. I think he’s made a conscious decision to pursue some other interests.
I’m hesitant to say this, but my son, (freshman) Grayson Cox, has got to step up and play in the midfield. I think (senior) Will Johnson also on the defensive side, and (senior) Taylor Zelhoff, I think we need to expect a lot out of them, and they need to step up and play for us.
Northwood is at the 3A level for one more year, but next spring you’ll be competing as a 2A school. What was your reaction to that decision? Is 2A the right place for Northwood?
I really don’t think it matters whether you put us 1A, 2A or 3A. We’ve played 4A teams as a 3A team. We played Chapel Hill last year. It depends on the talent level of the student athlete, in terms of who we play. I don’t believe being a 2A school changes my mindset in terms of challenging our student athletes. If we’re a 2A school and we have the ability to play a 3A or a 4A school, then I want to do that so we can continue to improve both individually as players and collectively as a team.
I’m trying not to look at it in terms of, “OK, now we’re a 2A school. Let’s just play the teams in our conference and not challenge the boys.” We want for them to improve. Some of these boys have aspirations to play post high school and collegiately, and I don’t think playing in a 2A- or 1A-type conference is going to put some of these boys in a position to play the level of competition they need to play in order to give them an opportunity to play after high school. I think from a coaching standpoint, we still need to put them in situations where they’re developing and getting better, if that makes sense.
Sports Editor Jeremy Vernon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jbo_vernon.