All week long, Howard Community College men’s lacrosse coach Erik Foust has been dealing with crossing the fine line where reality becomes euphoria.
Last Saturday, the then-No. 2 Dragons stunned No. 1 Nassau, 21-9, in a game that was nearly over in the third quarter after Howard took a 10-goal lead.
This week, by taking the top spot in the National Junior College Athletic Association poll, Howard became the first No. 1 ranked team at the school in any sport since the athletic department opened in 1977.
“This feels great,” said midfielder Chase Noah, the team’s top player with 17 goals and 16 assists. “It feels amazing, I’m at a loss for works. We came into that game thinking it was going to be a battle, but we smoked them.”
Foust just smiles.
Besides playing and visiting No. 2 Harford on Saturday, Foust has to guard against the “fat head” disease, where a team gets overconfident too early.
In his 10th season, Foust has led the Dragons to three Maryland Junior College Athletic Conference titles and two Region 20 championships. His teams have been to the NJCAA Tournament three times, including two appearances in the final four and a runner-up finish in 2017.
But this Howard team might be his best. The Dragons beat No. 5 and consistent national power Onondaga, 13-12, and No. 4 Essex, 16-8, before crushing Nassau.
Yet, that is why Foust is trying to put the brakes on. The Dragons are only 5-1 and still have five games remaining in the regular season.
Championships aren’t won in early April.
“Actually, I’ve been telling them not to play attention to it [the rankings],” Foust said. “It’s great but it’s not the end of the year. I think they understand that they have accomplished a lot but there is a lot more to accomplish.”
Part of the reason Foust is so cautious is that he remembers some of the COVID-19 related issues during the past two seasons, particularly last year when the Dragons couldn’t play out of state and start practice until the first week of March.
They finished 4-3 but had 16 players returning this year. They were also able to bring in several new players. Before social media, a lot of players went to community colleges to improve their grades before heading to a bigger school.
Now, community college is an affordable option to the astronomical cost of four-year schools. Howard has players on its roster from Michigan, Washington, California, Texas and even Canada.
The location of the campus in Columbia is also an attraction.
“The game is growing like crazy,” Foust said. “Players out west get overlooked. Some of them want to continue playing and want to play at a high level, and they view community college as an opportunity to get into the NCAA.”
This year, there are 21 former Howard players on NCAA rosters.
“I am not in the situation where I can fly out to California to recruit or scout, but the internet and social media has made it easier. We have outstanding academics here and our campus is beautiful, bigger than a lot of Division II and III schools. Columbia is regarded as the safest cities in America and one of the top 10 places to live in the country.”
The Dragons have outscored their opponents 92-62, and they are big and athletic on defense. Starting defenseman Connor Gladstone is 6 feet 4 and 180 pounds while fellow starter Jackson Loftis is 6-3, 230. Two other top defensemen are Jimmy Conner and Aaron Rubeling, who are both at least 6 feet and 170 pounds.
On offense, attackman Zane Dalpe has 23 goals and four assists to team with Chase to give the Dragons a good scoring tandem. Brian Zajac has seven goals and two assists and fellow attackman Caleb Tatum has nine goals and nine assists.
Maybe the most underrated player among the starters is goalie Chris Peterson, who has a .617 save percentage, second best in the country.
“I can’t take credit for all my points, the guys I play with are phenomenal, they catch everything I throw to them and we’re playing as a unit,” Chase said. “Our off-ball movement and shot selection has been good and we’re finishing well. We still make some mistakes, all teams do, but overall, we’ve been playing well.”
A key turning point for Howard came early in the season when they lost, 18-7, in the opener against Army Prep. That hurt, and combined with the fallout from a year ago, the Dragons were feeling a lot of pain.
A loss against Harford would hurt too, especially after coming off such a high.
“Harford has beaten us the last three times we have played each other,” Foust said. “They are well organized on offense and defense and they have perhaps the best face-off guy in the country. Last year we tried to get into a groove, tried to jell, but we needed and wanted to play more, and we were certainly not satisfied.
“This group actually likes competing and hanging around each other. I wasn’t surprised we beat Nassau; I was surprised by how much, but our kids work hard, and our assistant coaches are two of the best. But I’m not willing to say we are there yet. We can improve every game and there is a lot of room to grow. Let’s see where we finish this season.”
NO. 1 HOWARD@NO. 2 HARFORD