ELDERSBURG — Liberty's boys lacrosse team knows how to make deep playoff runs.
Two years ago, the Lions took an undefeated record to the state semifinals. Last spring, they struggled during the regular season but dominated their regional postseason opponents on a second straight final four journey.
Liberty is in the midst of another such adventure.
The Lions ended this regular season with three straight losses. They've responded quite well, it seems, and Monday's 9-6 win over county foe Winters Mill made it back-to-back playoff victories.
Liberty (8-6) is into the Class 2A West Region final after holding off the Falcons in the Section 1 title game. The Lions play again Wednesday against either Damascus or Middletown.
That game, the Section 2 final, was suspended Monday and is set to resume Tuesday.
Liberty's game was halted, too — the school's lightning detector siren went off with 6 minutes, 49 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, just before 6:30 p.m. The Lions led 9-5 and held on once play resumed around 8.
Derek Baldwin, Noah Rohrer, and Jake Griffin had two goals apiece to lead Liberty's offense, and Carter Munson handed out two assists.
The Lions' defense, however, was the difference, said coach Dave Griffin.
Led by senior goalie Zach Morris, fellow seniors Ryan Burrows and Kevin Lynch, and junior Gavin Bloom are part of a re-tooling project Griffin and his coaches installed before the playoffs. Liberty lost to Century, Glenelg, and Bel Air by a combined 40-8 to close out the regular season.
Griffin said he switched schemes and focused on winning the area between the restraining lines — the literal midfield — to help set up his offense and make things run smoother. With defensive help from midfielders Ryan Luthe and Kyle Sheetz, things have been different in the postseason.
"Defense is our biggest strength right now," said Griffin, whose unit has allowed 11 goals in the playoffs. "We're controlling the ball between the boxes."
That defense helped the Lions jump out to a 5-1 lead. Baldwin scored his two goals in the first half, both on nifty dodges and weaves around defenders. Jake Griffin's first goal made it 5-1 with 10:20 remaining in the half, but Winters Mill (6-11) got one back when Jusitn Hulse found Kaden Ross in front of the crease at the 4:22 mark.
The Falcons edged closer early in the third with goals from Hulse and Reid Stewart, but Liberty controlled things from there. Rohrer scored his pair in a three-minute stretch — he took an errant shot from a teammate off his lower body a few minutes earlier and limped around in visible pain, but regrouped — and Griffin added his second late in the quarter.
Roberto luis Ortiz pitched in by winning face-offs to keep the Falcons from mounting another comeback.
Winters Mill committed some early turnovers started too slow, said coach Jeff Beeker, after surviving a pair of thrilling overtime playoff games to reach Monday's sectional final.
"They came out a little bit flat. You've got to give credit to Liberty, they outplayed us," said Beeker, whose Falcons healed and peaked at the right time. "I'm proud of the guys. They finally started jelling and coming together."
Hulse and Kaden Ross has two goals apiece for Winters Mill, and Hulse added an assist. Senior goalie Collin Smith, who made 19 saves in WM's overtime win over Oakdale last Friday, stopped eight shots Monday night.
Liberty, meanwhile, waits for another playoff opponent. The Lions are one win away from a third straight regional championship.
"Very pleased," Dave Griffin said. "It goes to show what a strong youth program that we have here."
Goals: WM-Kaden Ross 2, Justin Hulse 2, Reid Stewart; L-Derek Baldwin 2, Noah Rohrer 2, Jake Griffin 2, Connor Stewart, Nicklas Hinton, Hunter Rask.
Assists: WM-Jansen Pusateri, Hulse; L-Carter Munson 2, Rask, Rohrer.
Saves: WM-8 (Collin Smith); L-6 (Zach Morris).
Halftime: Liberty 5-2.