Before the start of each game, the Glenelg boys lacrosse team huddles together and ends the meeting with three words that every team works for: "Be the best."
But in order to be the best, you've got to beat the best, and it's been six years since the Gladiators finished as the last team standing with the state championship trophy. And with a 3-6 record less than a month ago, it didn't look like that drought would end this season.
Fast-forward to Saturday and the Gladiators moved to within one victory of being state champions for a fourth time by handing defending state champion Linganore, winners of 33 straight games, its first loss of the season, 6-4, in a 3A/2A state semifinal game at Mt. Hebron.
It's the Gladiators' 10th trip to the championship game and first since making it four years straight from 2010 to 2013. Hatmaker's young and "goofy" group will try to extend their winning streak to 11 games when they will face Northern-Calvert, which beat Hereford, 10-8, in the other semifinal, for the state title on Tuesday or Wednesday at Stevenson University.
"Coach [Joe] Derwent and I were talking about it before the game. It's been a couple years and we're sitting there with butterflies," said Glenelg coach Josh Hatmaker, who improved to 184-49 as coach and led the program to state titles in 2007, 2008 and 2011. "It's pretty cool — you get a little bit nervous and I told the kids that we have to do this together and we have to have fun. That's what they do best."
With the halftime score tied at 3, Gladiators sophomore Tyler Reiff carried his team to the finish line and a weekend-long celebration. He scored the only three goals in the third quarter to make it 6-3 and the defense, led by a dominant performance from Connor Stanley and goalie Brian Doughty, held the Lancers to one second-half goal.
A year ago, Reiff was a standout freshman for a Reservoir team that finished 7-9. He transferred to Glenelg over the summer and his transition has been seamless, as the midfielder leads the team with 33 goals.
"Being on a team going to the state championship, it's like nothing I've ever imagined," he said. "There are no words to describe how amazing I feel right now. This team, they're my brothers. I've only been here for one year but I feel like family."
Reiff said the Gladiators schedule played a large part in getting them to this point. Playing teams like Severna Park, Broadneck, C.M. Wright and Westminster to go with a tough county schedule had Glenelg battle tested and ready for the challenge of ending Linganore's winning streak.
"All those teams set us up really well to be playing today. It's competition like that that gets you ready for games like this," Reiff said. "Linganore came in 17-0 but I think we just had more competition under out belts and had a little more experience in tough games, and that's what it takes to win these types of games."
Linganore came in averaging more than 13 goals per game and Jordan Swoyer had 52 goals and 106 points on the season. Stanley caused three turnovers and held Swoyer without a point, while goalie Brian Doughty finished with 10 saves, including four in the first quarter, to prevent Glenelg from falling into an early deficit like it did its previous two games against Marriotts Ridge and Northeast.
"Connor Stanley is a stud. He's been like that all season long," Hatmaker said. "He's hard to get away from. ... It's definitely a switch we're glad we made a couple years ago when he was a short stick. I'm proud of him and he's come a long way. I thought the whole defense played well."
The Lancers' Jack Watsic scored his first of three goals less than five minutes in to give his team a 1-0 lead before Glenelg's Ryan Hopkins answered late in the first quarter. Eric Gruber gave the Gladiators a 2-1 advantage with a goal on the extra-man offense but the Lancers scored the next two goals to re-take the lead at 3-2.
Their lead lasted only 22 seconds, however, as Tyler Nalls buried one for Glenelg to tie the game at 3 before the break.
Watsic finished off his hat trick with 7:32 left with Glenelg down two men on penalties, but the Gladiators maintained the majority of the possession down the stretch to hold off any serious threat from the Lancers.
"They were fast, they moved the ball well, they're athletic. They're a good lacrosse team," said Linganore coach Rich Thompson. "... They were quicker than we gave them credit for. They played a heck of a game."
Doughty made one last save with less than 20 seconds remaining before his teammates mobbed him to celebrate a win years in the making.
"We've been waiting for this for a really long time," Doughty said. "It's a really good feeling."
Glenelg (13-6) — 6, Linganore (17-1) — 4
Goals: G — Tyler Reiff 3, Ryan Hopkins, Eric Gruber, Tyler Nalls; L — Jack Watsic 3, Jacob Garwood
Assists: G — T. Nalls, Kyle Dry; L — None
Saves: G— Brian Doughty 10; L — Kyle Browne 6