The longer a team hangs around the playoffs, the fewer mistakes it can afford to make.
Centennial's boys lacrosse team learned that lesson Saturday in the Class 3A/4A state semifinals. The Eagles, who had won the ZTC Region III title three nights earlier by employing a brilliant game plan in a 7-6, double-overtime victory at C.M. Wright, could not reproduce their best lacrosse.
As a result, Dulaney took a quick, 3-0 lead, withstood several Centennial threats and never trailed while posting a 12-7 victory that sent the Eagles home -- satisfied with their best season in 10 years but still feeling depressed about what might have been.
"I don't think our last game was our best, and that's the way you want to go out," said Centennial junior midfielder Werner Krueger, who scored two goals.
Dulaney outclassed the Eagles in several areas, beginning with midfielder Brad Berzins, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound, Johns Hopkins-bound senior who clearly was the best player on the UMBC field. He scored four goals and added four assists -- both game-highs -- and generally was a terror in one-on-one situations.
But Berzins accounted for only part of Dulaney's efficiency. The Lions' defense adjusted nicely to Centennial's spread offense that slowed the game to a tempo the Eagles preferred. Dulaney also got two goals apiece from Mason Ray, Tim Speno and Dan Sherwood. And each time the Eagles would cut into Dulaney's lead, the Lions had an answer.
Mostly, though, this was a textbook example of a better team feasting on an opponent's miscues.
The Eagles had trouble clearing all day. Dulaney turned three unsuccessful clears into goals. The Eagles showed admirable discipline by avoiding the penalty box for the most part. Even so, the Lions turned their only two extra-man opportunities into scores. The Lions rarely overplayed on defense. Whenever Centennial found itself out of position in front of goalie Will Hong, Dulaney seemed to cash in.
"As a coach, you always talk about how the little things make a difference," said Centennial's 15-year coach Mike Siegert. The Eagles wound up with a 12-3 record and gave Siegert his first playoff appearance since 1982.
"We were doing things like not getting a guy behind the goal for the outlet pass in our spread offense. In the second half, we took some shots where we played catch with their goalie. . . . And our stickwork is not at the point where it needs to be to compete at that level."
At least the Eagles didn't lie down when they could have. Dulaney, a perennial state title contender, blitzed the Eagles with an unanswered three-goal outburst in the first one minute, 21 seconds. Two of those goals were in extra-man situations. The game had the look of a rout.
But Centennial settled into a slow-down offense, spreading its attack from sideline to sideline, a strategy it used with great success against C.M. Wright. It frustrated the Lions long enough to forge a 3-3 tie with two minutes left in the first quarter on goals by Krueger and attackman Cullen Meade (two).
Berzins then showed why he is headed to Hopkins. First, he fed Matt Steil for a 4-3 Dulaney lead. Seconds later, he scored his second goal to make it 5-3 with less than a minute left in the period.
Bill Alborn pulled the Eagles to within 5-4 early in the second period, and that was it for Centennial's offense for the rest of the half. With 4:40 left in the quarter, Ray intercepted an ill-advised clear by Hong (11 saves) 15 yards in front of the Eagles goal. His goal made it 6-4. Berzins scored again with three minutes left to give the Lions a 7-4 halftime lead.
From there, the closest the Eagles got was 8-6 with three minutes left in the third period.
While running all the what-could-have-beens through their minds, the Eagles consoled themselves with the fact that, after years of mediocre performances, they broke through as contenders, finishing second to Mount Hebron in the county before moving onto the playoffs.
"I can look back on the season with pride, knowing we finally turned the corner," said Siegert, who won regional-state crowns in 1980 and 1981, before making the playoffs in 1982, then missing for 10 straight years.
"We didn't want this to be a short season," Krueger said. "Even though nobody recognized it in the beginning of the season, we thought we were one of the better teams around."