Moments before the start of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship game Friday, St. Mary's senior faceoff specialist Alex Woodall was all by himself along the sideline, using every last minute to further perfect his craft.
For the rest of the night, it was on full display against No. 1 McDonogh before a packed crowd at Johns Hopkins' Homewood Field.
Time and time again, Woodall gave his team the ball when it was needed most, as he had all season. The No. 4 Saints' attack, potent and balanced, handled the rest.
Known as "The Big Cat" at St. Mary's, Woodall won 19 of 25 faceoffs and picked up 13 ground balls, and Bennett Johnson, Jake Carraway and Timmy Hardy each scored three goals to claim a 13-8 win over the Eagles. Woodall was named the game's Most Valuable Player, and after an isolated pregame, his postgame was a full-on celebration with teammates. It was the Saints' second MIAA crown and first since 1996, the league's first season. They also won a Maryland Scholastic Association championship in 1993.
"I work on [faceoffs] every day, and I love everything about it," Woodall said. "I'm speechless right now. It means everything to me and my friends right now."
The Saints (12-6) closed out the season with six straight wins, saving their best for an impressive playoff run during one of the league's most balanced seasons in recent years.
On Friday, a 5-0 run in the second quarter gave the Saints a cushion, and seemingly every time McDonogh (14-5) tried to make a push, Woodall would win an important draw and the Saints would push back. The Eagles got within three goals four times in the second half, and each time, the Saints scored the next goal.
In addition to their 19-6 margin in faceoffs, the Saints had a 37-19 advantage in ground balls and 31 shots to McDonogh's 21.
Third-year St. Mary's coach Ben Rubeor praised top-seeded McDonogh, but credited Woodall for giving the Saints the upper hand.
"Alex Woodall, I think, has been the most important key to our success. You can't substitute anything for the amount of possessions that we got this year, and he played great and deserved the MVP honor," he said.
At the start of the season, many believed the league had more parity than in recent years, with any number of teams capable of winning the title.
The regular season bore that out. Four teams held the No. 1 ranking at one point, and none of the six playoff spots were determined before the final day of the season.
Next week, St. Mary's will make it five teams that have held the top ranking this spring. The Saints surged with a late-season run that featured Woodall's usual dominant faceoff work, savvy goalkeeping from Tim Troutner, and a balanced attack that took advantage of its possessions.
After an 18-8 loss to Gilman on April 25, the Saints didn't lose again. They started their run with a 14-10 win against then-No. 1 Loyola Blakefield, which went into the game undefeated in MIAA play. They won two more regular-season games to grab the third seed in the conference tournament, then dominated Calvert Hall in the quarterfinals and upset second-seeded St. Paul's in Tuesday's semifinal.
It was another disappointing ending for McDonogh, which is still in search of its first league title since 2005.
"They just outplayed us tonight, plain and simple," McDonogh coach Andy Hilgartner said. "We didn't show up with our best game, and to beat a team like that, you have to show up with your best game. So credit to those guys."
John Carroll (13-7) jumped out to a 4-0 lead, keeping Archbishop Curley off the scoreboard until the final seconds of the first quarter, and stayed on top to win, 20-13, and capture the program's fifth Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association B Conference crown and first since 2010.
Jay Horner scored five goals and added an assist to lead the Patriots' attack, while Matthew Lowery, named the game's Most Valuable Player, finished with two goals and an assist, and dominated on faceoffs.
Both teams finished with 8-1 league records, but the Friars (10-7) earned the top seed with a 13-12 win over the Patriots on April 21. The Friars scored three goals in the last 90 seconds to rally for the win. In Friday's championship game, Curley was able to cut the lead to 7-5 early in the third quarter, but would get no closer with the Patriots taking complete charge with six unanswered goals to build a 15-6 advantage early in the fourth quarter.
For the winners, Jude Brown (three goals, two assists), Cody Saunders (three goals), Jake Bowling (three goals) and Boomer Walton (one goal, four assists) all played big roles in the Patriots.
"It starts with Matt Lowery winning every faceoff. When you win faceoffs it's hard for them to go on the runs and you can milk the clock. And when we got the lead, we were able to spread them out," first-year John Carroll coach Brian King said.
For Curley, Matt Pezzella scored four goals, and Ryan Bell finished with three goals and two assists.