When the 2010 lacrosse season ended for Rocky River, the Pirates found themselves in uncharted waters: the elite eight.
Despite a lopsided loss to state power University School in the Division II quarterfinals, the River boys had made great strides under then first-year head coach Steve Anderson. They looked forward to 2011 with their goals set on sailing where no Pirate had sailed before:
The final four.
This spring, River did just that. The Pirates went undefeated at 16-0, advancing to the Division II semifinals. University School was again the opponent, and US came out on top again. The visitors used a dominating first half to come away with a 17-11 win and advance to the state championship game.
Still, the Pirates used an 8-3 second half to show that they indeed belonged and finished out the season strong. It was all part of the program’s development, according to Anderson.
“There are a lot of things that stand out about this season,” Anderson said last week.
“Unlike last year, the kids kind of knew what to expect from me as a coach,” said Anderson, a former player at college powerhouse University of Virginia. “I think with that in mind, they were very comfortable with my expectations for them.
“They had the confidence and the work ethic to achieve our common goals,” he continued. “So for me personally, I really didn’t have to spend the time to reteach things to them at the beginning of the year. The one thing that stood out in that aspect was their confidence and their willingness to work hard as a team.
“We set our goals early,” Anderson said. “I set some goals for them and wanted their feedback. Right off the top, I felt we should strive to make the final four. they agreed to it, although I’m not so sure at the time that they really believed it.
“As the season went on, though, I think they really started to believe the goal was possible,” he said.
Anderson felt the team’s win over west side rival St. Edward was a key point in the season.
“I think that when we beat St. Ed’s, they believed,” Anderson said. “That’s the first time, to my knowledge, that a lacrosse team from River has beaten them. A couple of the guys made the comment that ‘we don’t beat St. Ed’s in any sport.’
“So that win was great for our kids, not only in lacrosse but for the school and the program overall,” he added.
The undefeated season was a plus, according to Anderson, but it didn’t come without its challenges throughout the season.
“I don’t go into a season saying we’re going to be undefeated because I believe in taking one game at a time,” Anderson said. “It’s always been a part of my mindset that I expect to win every game that I play or coach. I try to give the kids the tools to do that.
“It doesn’t always work out that way, but this season did. Even though we had our 16 wins, there were plenty of ups and downs within those victories. We ended up on the winning side because they found a way to win, which was excellent.
“They went in with that mindset, too. They expected to win every game and would do everything in their power to win. It was fun to watch,” he said.
Still, the Pirates had their troubles early on with US. With weather and scheduling problems, River had played their quarterfinal game with St. Francis DeSales on Memorial Day. The Pirates were playing a state semifinal with two days’ rest, while the opponent had four days to regroup.
The first time ever in the final four may have weighed on their minds as well, according to Anderson.
“I think it was a combination of nerves and having never been in a final four,” he said. “And not to take anything away from University School, but they had four days rest. We were coming off just two days rest after playing in 95-degree weather.
“I could see in the first half that our legs weren’t there,” Anderson recalled. “I their minds, they wanted to do well. But they regrouped in the second half and outscored them 8-3, so we were able to finish strong. That was more like what they did the entire season.”
Anderson felt his team may have not given themselves enough credit going into what proved to be the final game of the season.
“US is a team that has been there before,” Anderson said. “They’re in the final four every year, so their kids are used to being in that situation. They have the reputation for having a good lacrosse team, so yes, initially we may have been affected by that.
“But by the second half, the kids were looking at each other and saying ‘Why did we let that first half happen? We should be winning this game.’ I watched a video of some of the University School kids being interviewed. Their outlook was like ‘Hey, we can hang with Rocky River. We can run with them,’ so they were looking to stay with us. Our kids didn’t see it that way, but next year they will.
“I wish I could have seen that video early and showed it to our kids before the game,” he said.
This year’s team had 15 seniors listed on the roster, including leading scorer Matt Garibaldi and goalie Danny Schiau, who shared duties with sophomore Aaron Blossey the entire season. Garibaldi, an attacker, was honorable mention All-Ohio, as was senior defender Jake Hamilton. Second team All-Ohio honors went to junior midfielder Ty Daugstrup and senior defender Eric Riegelsberger.
“I think it might be the first time we’ve gotten any recognition at that level, certainly for four players,” Anderson said. “When your team does well, your players seem to get more recognition, which is nice for all of our players.”
Anderson said the program has plenty of underclassmen who will be returning next year, as well as re-enforcements coming from this year’s junior varsity squad. That team played a full season this spring.
“We have a lot of returning starters, and kids from our junior varsity who got a lot of experience this year,” Anderson said. “”It was our first full season for junior varsity, and they finished around .500. But most of them were freshmen, and they ended their season by winning a tournament out in Kenston.
“They beat Solon for the championship, and they have an excellent program. Our kids wanted to keep playing after that,” he said with a smile.