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Surprising Westminster clinches boys lacrosse title

Though the Westminster boys lacrosse team has made a habit of advancing deep into the playoffs in recent years, few expected the Owls to be a factor in the Carroll County title race this spring.

Coach Jeff Doolan's team entered this season facing the challenges of replacing its top three scorers from a year ago, as well as starting a freshman in goal, On Tuesday, however, the Owls sent a defiant message to their doubters, defeating Century to clinch an improbable county championship.

"Coming in, nobody really gave us a chance this year," said Doolan, whose team has earned a spot in the state semifinals or finals each of the past five years. "When people talked about the teams going for the county title, we weren't even in the discussion. We kind of used that a little bit as motivation."

They first had to overcome a slow start, caused in part by a brutal early season schedule. The Owls started 2-3, suffering losses to North Virginia power Langley, Washington private school Good Counsel and four-time defending regional champion Urbana.

"Those were all pretty respectable losses, considering the teams," Doolan said. "Those three teams' combined records are probably about 40-6."

Since then, Westminster is 7-1. The Owls, who are scheduled to close out their regular season tomorrow at Liberty, already have beaten all of the county's other top contenders, including Winters Mill, South Carroll, North Carroll and Century.

And they've done it with little fanfare.

"We've just had different people step up in different games, and they've done so pretty anonymously," Doolan said. "It's kind of been by committee."

While midfielder Dan Mruk has been the Owls' go-to player on offense all season, midfielder Ben Stewart and attackmen Justin Bartlett and Adam Topolski each have made key contributions, entering this weekend's play among the county leaders in scoring.

Defensively, junior Brett Baer leads a unit that has held opponents to 10 goals or fewer in all but one game. And freshman Eric Natale, 5 feet 10, continues to turn heads in goal, playing well beyond his years.

"We've definitely pulled together in a us against the world mentality," Doolan said. "We've talked a lot about having a family atmosphere and having each other's back on and off the field. I think that's helped translate into the success we've seen."

Falcons learn from loss

A heartbreaking loss to Maryvale two weeks ago played a large role in the success of the Winters Mill girls lacrosse team down the stretch this season, according to coach Courtney Vaughn.

The Falcons blew a two-goal lead in the final minutes and lost that game, 13-12, when Maryvale's Nikki Puszcz scored with 20 seconds to play in overtime. The lessons learned by the young team, however, have proved invaluable in recent tight wins over Hereford and Liberty.

"We learned that when you're up by two, it's not over until the last whistle blows," said Vaughn, whose team features only two seniors. "We learned so much from it that it enabled us to win against Hereford and Liberty. It showed us just how key possession is and quality shots. We didn't take care of the ball."

Winters Mill now has won four straight and would clinch the county title if Liberty defeats host Westminster tomorrow night, based on head-to-head results.

The Falcons may have to face both Century and Liberty one more time in the regional tournament, which begins later this week. They edged Century -- the two-time defending Class 2A-1A state champion -- by a goal earlier this season.

The team is led by goalie Katherine Russo, who will continue her career next season at the University of Cincinnati, and midfielder Jen Peters, who will play for St. Joseph's.

To Vaughn, however, it's been the development of several younger players that has been the key.

"You can really see their growth and development each day at practice and even in the games," she said.

Key makes strides

Less than a week after taking fifth at its own invitational -- finishing behind county rivals South Carroll, Westminster and Winters Mill in the process -- Francis Scott Key on Wednesday came back to take first place in the Monocacy Valley Athletic League's Blue Ridge Conference boys track and field meet.

Despite outward appearances, however, the results were anything but a surprise.

"We didn't have our top five sprinters and jumpers [at the FSK Invitational]," said Eagles coach Tim Walsh, whose elite performers skipped the event in favor of the Penn Relays that day. "It was pretty much our JV team and then our distance team."

The Blue Ridge meet, which also featured Century, Liberty, South Carroll and Winters Mill, provided a strong test for the Eagles heading into Wednesday's Carroll County championships, where they will attempt to dethrone defending champion North Carroll.

"North Carroll has the advantage of having a bigger team, but it's going to be tough," Walsh said. "We're going to go point for point, and it's going to be a tight meet."

To submit news and story ideas about Carroll County high school athletics, contact Rich Scherr at CarrollSports@comcast.net.

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