The hottest day of the year was taking shape, as the temperature climbed toward the 90-degree mark. And Centennial's boys lacrosse team seemed to be enjoying a punishing workout in the sun.
They had just completed their best regular season in 12 years, but the Eagles were not in the mood for back slapping. Instead, after a final regular-season week during which they recorded unimpressive victories over Glenelg, 8-6, and Howard, 13-9, to finish with a 12-1 record and their first county championship since 1982, they chose a soul-searching approach.
"It seems like we've been declining. It's a big concern," senior midfielder Werner Krueger said. "We've just been kind of getting by, doing what it takes to win."
Coach Mike Siegert said: "I blame myself for not motivating them. The problems we had in those two games, I write off because of a lack of intensity and a lack of conditioning. There is no way we can just show up and beat anybody. We've got to
"I guess now that we're in the playoffs, we'll click," added Robbie Hauff, the key part of Centennial's fine sophomore attack. "He [Siegert] is busting our butts now. We need it."
The Eagles exasperated Siegert a little more on Friday, when they started slowly against overmatched Northwestern in the Class 4A-3A Region I playoffs before pulling away to a 19-2 victory that sends them to Tuesday's regional final against South Carroll. Before Siegert called timeout midway through the second period and addressed his players' lethargy, they were only leading 2-0.
The Eagles have not required much prodding this spring. Not while they averaged 15 goals during a 13-game winning streak. Not while they were putting 10 years of frustration behind them last month with a 21-7 pasting of rival Mount Hebron. Not while they were going undefeated against the county to earn their second straight trip to the playoffs and a chance to dream about their first state title since 1981.
The most striking feature about the Eagles is their youth. Among their starters, only midfielders Krueger, Brian Rhodes and Greg Matschat and goalie Will Hong are seniors.
Age has not affected Centennial's ability to score, mainly because the sophomore attack trio of Hauff, Tony Harding and Dave Saunders is not as green as it looks. They were playing lacrosse in middle school.
"We had a nucleus of kids who came in as freshmen who were well-rounded athletically, but whose favorite sport clearly was lacrosse," Siegert said. "That was the single biggest factor in the success we had back then [in the early 1980s], just like it is now."
What has set the Eagles' offense apart from the rest in the county has been its unselfishness and crisp passing. Ball movement is its creed. Seventy-nine percent of its 207 goals have resulted from assists.
"We always look for each other. Before we even think about scoring a goal, we're looking for an open man," said Hauff, who leads the team with 43 goals and 44 assists. "I'd rather get seven assists and no goals than seven goals and no assists."
That has been a relief to Krueger. Headed to Johns Hopkins on a lacrosse scholarship, Krueger is the heart of the Eagles. His responsibilities include winning faceoffs (he has a 69 percent success rate), controlling ground balls (he leads the team for the second straight year with 154), and scoring (37 goals, 33 assists). No one does a better job of sparking Centennial's potent fast break.
"I thought I'd have to do a lot of the scoring and a lot more one-on-one stuff," said Krueger, who has played lacrosse since he was 7. "But I haven't played one game this year where it's
come down to, 'All right Krueger, you have to score.' It's fun to be able to move the ball around, never feeling like you have to shoot."
Hauff, Harding (32, 27) and Saunders (36, 17) have that philosophy down to a science. Hauff has been the league's breakthrough player this spring. He already has set single-season school records in goals and assists.
Throw in the offensive contributions of Rhodes (22 goals, 18 assists) and Matschat (18, 9), and you have a team with plenty of scoring options.
If the Eagles have an Achilles' heel, it's their defense, especially since their top defender, sophomore Matt Rainwater, went down last month with a fractured hand.
Siegert says Rainwater is the best defenseman he has coached in a decade. His absence has forced the Eagles to rely on a defense-by-committee -- Stephen Puckett, Burke Hare, Doug Golden, Brian Harding and Andy Lett. The Eagles hope to get Rainwater back in time for the state playoffs, should they make it that far.
Centennial's defense has been adequate, especially with the experienced Hong in goal. Winding up his second season in the cage, Hong has averaged eight saves and has lent stability to a unit that has showed its inexperience at times, like in the regular-season finale against Howard. One of the league's more ineffective attacks, Howard scored eight goals over the final three quarters to nearly erase a 7-1 deficit in a 13-9 defeat.
"We've got to do a better job of riding and clearing. Defensively, we've got to start stopping other teams," Krueger said. "I put part of the blame on myself and the other middies. We haven't given them [the defense] too much help. We've got to do a pTC better job of getting back in transition."
Hauff added, "We just have to play with more intensity. When we come out fired up like we did against Hebron, we can do anything. When we come out flat, anybody can beat us."