Senior-led Chargers advance past 3rd round


Update: Northwood defeated Croatan, 5-4, on Tuesday in the third round of the 1A/2A/3A boys lacrosse state tournament. The Chargers (16-3) will face either Swansboro or Havelock in the fourth round at home Friday. Start time is TBD. The following story was written before Tuesday's third-round game.

After the Northwood boys lacrosse team built a 9-0 lead at halftime on Friday night in its second-round playoff game against crosstown rival Seaforth, the Chargers’ players rushed over to the sidelines in celebration. Facing a significant deficit, most of the Hawks’ players hung their heads as they trudged to the bench.

Seaforth would add two goals in the second half, but it wasn’t enough to stop Northwood, as the Chargers easily claimed a 15-2 victory to advance to the third round, which took place Tuesday night (after press time). The win marked the first time the Chargers’ boys lacrosse team has advanced past the second round of state playoffs, and now Northwood’s seniors are looking to carry the team all the way to a state championship.

“We started the fall season saying we want to finish,” Northwood coach Randy Cox said. “Finish, finish, finish. That seemed to be the word.”

Northwood’s top three goal-scorers are all seniors — midfielder Will Smith (63) and attackmen Taylor Laberge (60) and Jason Walden (54). On the defensive end, they are anchored by seniors Taylor Zelhof and Will Johnson.

All the seniors excelled during Friday’s win. Smith, Laberge and Walden each recorded a hat trick, and Smith led the team with four assists. Johnson controlled 11 ground balls — so many that Northwood’s bookkeeper had to keep track in the margins of their scorebook — and also kicked the game off with the Chargers’ first goal late in the first quarter. Zelhof, playing on the closed defensive side of the ball, put his lacrosse IQ on display with a solid, fundamental defensive presence and vocal leadership.

Smith, Laberge, Zelhof and Johnson have been playing together since their days on a local rec team, the Chatham Cardinals. The four shared a laugh after Friday’s win as they reminisced on the team’s early days — Laberge admits that they weren’t exactly stellar players when the group started playing together around the 4th grade — but by 8th grade, the team really picked up steam. As they began to beat middle school teams in Raleigh and Chapel Hill, their confidence and camaraderie grew.

“We’ve all been playing for probably eight years,” Laberge said. “This has kind of been the senior class for forever. The fact that we’re able to go on a run here in our senior year is pretty good.”

Cox said the Chargers made a major jump this past offseason. After a first-round loss in the state playoffs to Williams last spring, the seniors made it a point to take “ownership of the outcome,” in their final year with the team.

This season, Northwood honed in on the tiny details — moving the ball and moving off-ball while playing defense inside-out and on both sides of the ball. They’re constantly analyzing and looking for improvements. Even after a 13-point victory, Laberge said the Chargers could have fared better in face-off situations and needed to clean up various offensive possessions.

As part of their leadership, the senior corps also makes it a point to involve their younger players, too. In postgame interviews, Smith, Laberge, Zelhof and Johnson all shouted out freshman goalie James Flanagan, whose presence on the field exudes confidence in spite of his youth. Cox was also quick to point to Carson Fortunes’ rise as a role-player for the team. Fortunes, a junior, is fourth on the team in scoring (39) despite playing lacrosse for just two years.

And, if Fortunes’ celebration after slinging in a goal in the third quarter is any indication, the team is hungry for more. Long after Fortune’s corn-on-the-cob celebration — the junior picked up his stick and moved his head back and forth in a chomping motion — had ceased, and the Chargers had packed their gear to head for the locker room, Cox stood on the sideline and grinned intently as he made his expectations clear.

“(We want) a state championship,” Cox said. “We’ll give it our best shot to get there but a state championship would just be fantastic for these boys.”

boys lacrosse, northwood, playoffs, nchsaa, croatan, seaforth