Gamber-Smallwood Optimist team surprises everyone


GAMBER -- Their Maryland Youth Lacrosse League opponents are generally far more experienced and draw their teams from a much larger pool of players.

Maybe that's why Gamber-Smallwood Optimist lacrosse coach Butch Hilliard was not overly optimistic about the upcoming campaign when his 10-, 11- and 12-year-old boys showed up for practice this spring.

"I didn't expect we'd have that good a team," Hilliard recalled.

But those youngsters have surprised their coach, their fans and maybe even themselves.

They were 10-0 during the league's 12-and-under B Division regular season.

They then topped Edgewood of Harford County, 9-1, in a quarterfinal playoff game Thursday.

Gamber was to meet Cockeysville of Baltimore County last night (after press time), to see which squad will play in Saturday's divisional championship game at Cedar Lane Park in Columbia.

"I'm just ecstatic," said Hilliard, a Westminster resident and former lacrosse standout at Boys' Latin School in Baltimore and Cornell University in New York. "I'm very pleased for the kids. It's a real thrill for me.

"I get more nervous before a game than they do," added Hilliard, a member of the Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

He was probably a little edgy early in last week's playoff at McDonogh School near Owings Mills with his team locked in a 1-1 tie with Edgewood.

But Gamber exploded for six second-period goals.

Midfielder David Rongione, who leads the team with 23 goals, scored three times in the game, Mike Wojtaszek twice, and Nick Beser and Matt Dudderer once. Matt Prim and John Ritcey, tied with Rongione for the

team lead in points with 24, each added a goal.

Hilliard can probably be excused for being a bit surprised at all this.

His players, who had been selected from Gamber's in-house program, averaged no more than two years experience, while their counterparts in Baltimore County often start at age 6, Hilliard said.

"I had some good athletes, but they had to learn to use the stick," said the former prep and college lacrosse goalie.

He and assistant Bill Brewster, who also tended the nets in his lacrosse days at Western Maryland College, worked hard with the players on basic skills such as catching and throwing, along with some basic plays.

Despite his early misgivings, the team began winning and hasn't stopped. Hilliard said the squad sort of grew on him as the year progressed and, suddenly, "halfway through the season, I realized we had a chance to go undefeated."

Both offense and defense jelled as Gamber averaged eight goals a game while yielding only three.

Rongione, Prim and Ritcey keyed a potent offense. And opponents testing the Gamber defense could count on Ryan Falter and Pete Burch to hound their top scorer. With two former collegiate goalies as his coach, it's no surprise goalie Baret Dickson helped anchor the defense.

Dickson twice made 15 saves in a game, one of these a 4-2 win over Cobra of Howard County.

But it's now a new season where one mistake will be Gamber's last.

Hilliard takes little comfort that his team beat semifinal foe Cockeysville in a regular-season meeting.

"They're always tough," he said.

The Gamber team's other members are Ryan Esposito, Stephen Fairclogh, Ryan Elwell, Richard Brewer, Shawn Martin, Travis Daniel and Brian Dietz.

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