The opponent was the same from last season, but the stage was much bigger, and with an undefeated season within its grasp, Howard narrowly missed the opportunity to make history.
After 18 consecutive wins, the Lions' Cinderella story finally came to an end at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Tuesday, as South River clinched the 4A/3A boys lacrosse state championship with a decisive 9-6 victory.
It was the second time the Seahawks (17-2) edged the Howard County champions in the state playoffs in as many seasons. Last year was in the semifinals, this year was in the title game.
"They just had heavy pressure all the time. (They were) fast, athletic. We knew that coming in," Howard coach Jimmy Creighton said. "I thought we could have handled that pressure a lot better, but a lot of credit to them."
Howard got two goals apiece from Scott Bruner and Cody Ford, and John Travisano dominated from the X, winning 15 of 17 chances. Still, the Howard offense had difficulty collecting itself and getting into a steady rhythm without unforced turnovers slowing things down.
On the other side, South River, having lost 15 seniors from last year's team, still knew how to handle a potent offensive attack. Playing in its second straight state championship game, the experienced Seahawks kept Howard in check for the majority of the game.
"We know who their shooters are, we know who their players are," said South River coach Paul Noone, who collected his third state championship trophy in seven seasons at the helm of the program. "That was a great, great defensive scheme…(our coaches) knew exactly who to look for. They put the right guys in the right position to make plays, and they made plays all night long."
Over the course of the nearly perfect campaign leading up to the title bout, the Lions were notorious for ending games much differently than how they started them.
Against the Seahawks, that slow-starting habit was exploited from the opening faceoff, when South River connected on its opening possession courtesy of Grant Maloof.
During the next seven minutes, Maloof fed Brandon Senft for another score, followed by Dylan Mansur's unassisted tally, putting the Seahawks ahead, 3-0, over the Lions.
Inside the final minute of the opening quarter, Howard's Scott Bruner took control, darting two shots past goalie Charles Palandati to get his team back within one goal.
Still, two more scores from Seahawks Andrew Thomas and Nathan Chisolm kept the control firmly in the hands of the team from Anne Arundel County.
Yet, Travisano continued to win faceoffs — even netting an unassisted score after snagging a possession from the X at the 6:21 mark — which kept the Lions' hopes alive, 5-3, heading into the break.
"It's always nice to get the possessions," Travisano said. "We definitely pushed it when we got the ball on offense."
In the third quarter, that familiar Howard defense resurfaced for 12 minutes of shutdown play. While the Lions team that held regular season opponents to under three goals a game failed to give way, the team's offense didn't capitalize on the chance.
In the fourth quarter, the Seahawks took advantage of a man-up situation within the first minute, and Cole Fanzo ended the game's scoring drought of more than 18 minutes. Howard's Ford was good for two scores within one minute of one another, and Leo Sementilli added another. Despite the late comeback attempt, the Lions' chances were sunk when Michael Ward connected for South River's ninth and final goal with 2:18 to play.
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The Lions' season ends with an 18-1 mark — a feat that senior defender Peter Emery said couldn't have been achieved without the encouragement his team received along the way. Citing the entire community, as well as members of the program's first-ever lacrosse team honored earlier this season, Emery struggled to find words afterward.
"I've never been a part of something for my entire four years at Howard that had so much support," he said. "It was unbelievable to see…it was wonderful to be a part of."
South River 9, Howard 6
Goals: SR – Dylan Mansur (2), Grant Maloof, Brandon Senft, Andrew Thomas, Nathan Chisolm, Cole Fanzo, Matt Egley, Michael Ward; Scott Bruner (2), Cody Ford (2), Leo Sementilli, John Travisano.
Assists: SR – Gunnar Schmolar, Maloof (2), Mansur, Thomas; H – Justin Simmons, Sementilli.
Saves: SR – Charles Palandati 5; H – Bryan Mauser 10.
Half: 5-3, Seahawks.