From the beginning of the season, Sparrows Point boys lacrosse coach Matt Wickman said the goal was to play for the state championship.
It was a pretty lofty goal, considering the Pointer boys lacrosse program had never reached the state championship game, and had only twice made it as far as the state semifinals.
(That’s not as bad as it sounds. The state tournament has only existed since 1990.)
Monday, Sparrows Point played for the Class 1A state championship at Paint Branch High. The Pointers lost to defending champion Patterson Mill, 14-3, but it’s a start.
The important win was Friday’s 7-4 victory over McDonough in the state semifinals at Havre de Grace.
It was a grind-it-out, slow-paced defensive struggle the Pointers led from the start-to-finish.
Both teams were trying to husband their defender’s stamina — McDonough through playing a zone, Sparrows Point by keeping the ball out of its end of the field.
“That was part of our game plan — to hold the ball,” Wickman said. “Because of injuries, we were a little short on the defensive end.
“”We wanted those guys to be able to play to their potential in the fourth quarter, so the plan was to hold the ball and give them a break.”
As plans go, you couldn’t fault the Pointers’ execution.
Sparrows Point held the ball for nearly the entire first quarter and led 2-0 before McDonough possessed the ball for any length of time.
But it started to get frustrating, as the Pointers failed to connect on their first nine shots of the game.
On the 10th shot, Tyler Crouse fired from directly in front of the goal and found the net with 3:11 remaining in the first quarter.
Sparrows Point won the face-off, and this time it only took two shots before Matt Merbach gave the Pointers a two-goal lead.
McDonough won the ensuing face-off and the Rams finally took their first shot of the game, then took two more shots.
All three were turned away by Pointer goalie Zach Barnickel.
Playing perhaps his best game of the season, Barnickel finished with 17 saves.
With the way the Sparrows Point attack dominated possession, “I definitely did not want [McDonough] to come down and get a quick goal,” Barnickel said. “I needed to shut the door, keep the defense rolling.
“McDonough liked to go low, get a lot of bounces on their shots. The second half, they started shooting up high.”
Sparrows Point continued to control possession in the second quarter, albeit not to the extent it did in the first quarter.
Ryan Merbach made it 3-0 with 6:33 remaining in the first half.
But it had only been four days since Loch Raven could not make a three-goal lead stand up against Sparrows Point, so no one was ready to celebrate that first state finals berth.
The Rams finally scored with 4:18 left in the half, and looked ready to add another goal after the Pointers were assessed a two-minute non-releasable penalty for unnecessary roughness.
In what was perhaps the key moment of the game, not only was McDonough unable to take advantage of the penalty, but the Pointers scored while a man down to take a 4-1 lead into halftime.
Barnickel stopped two shots, then the Rams dropped the ball. A long pass upfield found Crouse, who scored on a fast-break.
But the Rams were never really out of the game. A Sparrows Point turnover at the start of the third quarter led to a McDonough goal in the first 20 seconds of the half, cutting the Pointers’ lead to 4-2.
Matt and Ryan Merbach each scored a goal to extend Sparrows Point’s lead to 6-2, but with nine minutes left in the game the Pointer lead was down to 6-4.
Barnickle stopped a sot that would have made it a one-goal game, and Ryan Merbach scored with 5:07 remaining for some breathing room.
“Honestly, I can’t describe how it feels to be part of the first team that makes it to the state finals,” Crouse said. “Nobody thought we could do it. And now we’re going to play for the state championship.”
“It’s the best feeling,” Wickman said. “It’s been our goal from the beginning of the season.”