The quiet bus ride home from Towson University was painfully familiar for the Boys' Latin lacrosse team last May.
For a second straight year, the Lakers had failed to get past the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference semifinals. And for a second straight year, their opponent — this time Calvert Hall — went on to win the coveted league championship.
But along with the collective frustration, Boys' Latin coach Bob Shriver saw something far more intuitive.
"As soon as the last whistle blew against Calvert Hall — basically coming home on the bus — you could see that we had a lot of pieces to be really good this year," he said. "It was whether they were going to buy in — and they have 100 percent."
With 19 seniors and 41 players on the roster — the most Shriver has ever carried in his 34 years as head coach — the "100 percent" the No. 1 Lakers have given led them to a 19-0 regular season and the top seed and a first-round bye in the MIAA A Conference playoffs. The quarterfinal round opens Friday with sixth seed Loyola traveling to third seed Gilman and fifth seed St. Paul's visiting fourth seed Calvert Hall.
Boys' Latin will begin its quest to win the program's sixth MIAA championship in Tuesday's semifinal round — two wins away from a third perfect season.
Picked as the No. 1 boys lacrosse team in the country at the start of the season, the Lakers have fended off every challenge — a demanding non-conference schedule followed by the typical MIAA grind — with a consistent focus on the next practice and next game.
The Lakers have tried to stay away from the "perfect season" topic when talking about their performance, but it has become unavoidable now with their ultimate goal of winning the championship within grasp and an undefeated season needed to accomplish it.
"That would be awesome," Lakers senior attackman Colin Heacock said. "Going undefeated and being national champions is always in the back of your mind. So if you have that in your head when you go out for practice, it makes you work that much harder because you always want to be doing more than what other teams are doing."
What has separated the Lakers from the rest of the MIAA has been the the team's across-the-board depth at every position.
In its 13-7 win over Calvert Hall on April 26, Boys' Latin used 13 midfielders in the first quarter. When they got a significant push from No. 2 McDonogh in their first league game on April 9, the Lakers noticeably wore down the Eagles on a hot day to dominate the fourth quarter in a 15-10 win.
In recent MIAA playoffs, senior-heavy teams have managed to win despite often going up against more talented, but younger opponents.
In 2008, a Loyola squad dominated by seniors upset Gilman, which had a talented team full of mostly juniors. The Greyhounds bounced back to win the championship the next season. Calvert Hall faced the same situation over the past two years. With a gifted young team, the Cardinals appeared ready to win the 2011 championship but were upset by Gilman before winning the title last season.
"If you look at the common thread, in my opinion, I think having mature talent is the difference," Shriver said. "Kids that have been in the fray, understand what it's all about and are focused. Oftentimes, that comes back to seniors and senior leadership."
With defenseman Mac Pons, a four-year starter, nine three-year starters and many other players with extended time on varsity, the Lakers appear to have what it takes to complete the unbeaten season.
Heacock and junior Shack Stanwick, a three-year starter, lead a balanced and fast attack that doesn't allow opposing defenses to set up or key on any one player.
The Lakers have 10 players with 10 or more goals and two midfield lines have both produced 40 or more goals. Pons is the glue to a defense that also includes Tom Brown and goalie Christian Knight.
To date, the season has produced a number of big moments for Boys' Latin. There was an 11-9 win against Indiana's Culver Academy on March 26 in a rare game during which the Lakers were trailing late. Conference wins against Calvert Hall, Loyola and Gilman — all teams against which they haven't had much success in recent years — brought extra satisfaction.
But ask many of the players what stands out the most this season and similar responses often follow.
"I think the most enjoyable part for me has just been playing with my friends," Pons said. "We have a great group of guys and all of us have been playing together and having fun for a long time, and that's been the best part of the season."