Howard boys lacrosse entered Saturday's 4A/3A state semifinal against Dulaney having failed to find the loss column since its 2013 bid for a title berth.
Thanks to Brad Zulick and Scott Bruner's three goals each, as well as John Travisano's control at the faceoff, and the defense's resolute play in the second half, the Howard County champions will not only move on, but also get a chance at revenge.
Howard defeated the Dulaney Lions, 8-4, at Northeast High School, and will advance to the state title game against South River – the team that dashed the team's dreams last season in the state semifinals.
"(I) couldn't be happier right now," Howard coach Jimmy Creighton said after the game. "Slow start, but the kids gathered their thoughts. (We) definitely came out a little tight, a little nervous."
Dulaney (14-5), which got out to an early two-goal lead, ultimately couldn't keep up with Howard's scoring frequency. After netting three goals in the second quarter, the Baltimore County squad was held scoreless the entire fourth.
"Unfortunately once the runs started to go away from us, we weren't able to get them to come back our way," Dulaney coach Kyle Fiat said. "We knew they were going to pressure. We knew how athletic and physical they were. We believed we could match up with them. Today, we just weren't able to make it happen."
Howard was the beneficiary of two crucial three-goal runs in the game – one of which came in the second quarter, the other in the third.
After Bruner's first goal of the game was called off for a crease violation, the junior attackman struck soon after, giving Howard a 1-0 lead in the opening quarter.
Dulaney responded in the second frame, tacking on three scores off the hands of Keegan Colegrove, Joe Fingles and Cameron Carter, which gave the Baltimore County squad a 3-1 lead with 3:20 to go in the half.
Howard, known to feed off the success of John Travisano from the faceoff X, started its run in the final minutes of the half. The senior won three battles from midfield, which resulted in two goals from Bruner, and another from Zulick.
"Trav(isano) is a big help for us," Zulick said of the faceoff whiz. "He puts a lot of pressure on the other team, and helps us push offense, push transitions."
Creighton, who has lauded the Travisano's impact on the team all season, added that the senior's ability to create extra possessions in a game where the offense wasn't at its peak was imperative to the team's success.
The team went into halftime up one goal, but Creighton said there were a few things that needed adjusting if the lead was going to stick.
"The 50-50 ground balls were not going our way," he said. "It was an effort thing. They were really out-working us in the first half."
In the third quarter, Howard heard its coach's assessment, and made the necessary changes. It started with Travisano, who picked up a ricochet off a teammate's shot in front of the crease, gave a quick pump fake and scored – all within the opening minute.
Dulaney's Will Fingles responded minutes later with a runner to his left that cut into the Howard defense for the score. It was the last time the back line would give way to an opponent.
Later in the third, Dulaney held on for an extended possession that ultimately proved futile on the scoreboard, and Howard subsequently got a goal from Cody Ford, and then Zulick, to extend the lead. Zulick's third score in the final period was enough to seal the victory.
"In the second half, I thought the kids stayed the course, as I've been talking about all year, and started executing a little bit better on both sides of the ball," Creighton said.
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With just one game standing within Howard and a perfect season, as well as its first state championship in the modern era, Creighton said the team is focused on the task at hand – even with revenge against South River fueling the fire.
"They gave us all we could handle last year, and the final score proved that," he said. "I'm sure some of the guys would like to get some revenge and whatever else, but the ultimate goal is to win the state championship."
Howard 8, Dulaney 4
Goals: H – Brad Zulick (3), Scott Bruner (3), Cody Ford, John Travisano; D – Joe Fingles, Will Fingles, Keegan Colegrove, Cameron Carter.
Assists: H – Zulick (2), Travisano, Bruner; Kyle Thibeault.
Saves: H – Bryan Mauser 12; Burke McManus 10.
Half: 4-3, Howard Lions.