Wilton has spent the better part of a decade chasing ghosts.
First-year coach John Wiseman puts it more diplomatically. Expectations, he says, weren’t aligned with reality.
Not unlike Long Island’s Ward Melville, another power felled by the game’s growth, Wilton has played host to a curious mix of fatalism and denial (the WLA’s online history ends in 2005, the school’s last state championship) in recent years.
The 2007 campaign was the nadir. An inexperienced squad stumbled to a 10-10 finish; in a particularly humbling moment, the Warriors were pasted by upstart New Milford, 16-2. By the following season, the negativity and hysteria that hovered over the program had become suffocating. Parents clamored for change.
In his first year at the helm, the former all-American made restoring pride a priority. Legendary coach Guy Whitten spoke to the team, alums shipped in for a preseason scrimmage and Wiseman reemphasized the program’s unique place in Connecticut history. Tradition, too often wielded as a cudgel, has become a source of inspiration.
Wilton is one of the most storied programs in Connecticut, says Wiseman, but you can’t shout it at these kids. I’ve tried to tell them very directly what it means to be a Warrior.
Historically, being a Warrior has meant winning. And Wiseman who coached this year’s seniors in eighth grade CONNYs entered the 2009 season with the pieces in place to do just that.
Attackman Peter McMahon, defenseman Joe LaSala and goalie James Fuller formed the team’s veteran core. Midfielder Vinnie Cannon presided over a young midfield unit. And a host of underclassmen including a sophomore group that has been touted as amongst the state’s best looked to step into larger roles.
What followed was a stomach-churning, heartstring-tugging 16-6 thrill ride. After conceding 15 goals to Ridgefield at Tiger Hollow, the Warriors lost a slugfest to Darien (a game which Wiseman cites as an important confidence-builder) and reeled off eight straight victories.
A blowout loss to St. Anthony’s preceded a dramatic 8-6 takedown of Yorktown. And the Warriors followed an FCIAC semifinal meltdown with a run to the state title game a place that this year’s seniors had never been. Six Flags Wilton, lacrosse-style.
But to a program starved for success, the up-and-down season has been a godsend. Signs of improvement lurk in every milestone the first victory over Yorktown in nine years, competitive games against Darien (including a 10-8 deficit late in the third quarter of last Saturday’s championship game) and Pete McMahon’s ascension to first on the all-time scoring list. More importantly, the Warriors’ grit and hustle have triggered an attitudinal shift in the program.
There’s more energy, a little more positive everything, says Jane Wood, the Wilton Lacrosse Association’s Vice President.
And whom do the players credit for the transformation?
Wiseman brought back the pride of being part of Wilton lacrosse, says all-American defenseman Joe LaSala. When you stepped on the field, you weren’t just playing for yourself anymore. It was much more important than that.
The sense of forward momentum is palpable. Next year’s squad will compete in a wide-open FCIAC race, and the Class M title a near-reality in 2009 is attainable. A stocked cupboard will help matters. Junior Mike Francia, a slippery, score-first attackman, headlines a seasoned returning attack unit. Keep an eye also on Jack Krueger, who impressed before a Bridgeport Central cheap shot ended his season. At midfield, depth is the name of the game. Jon Andrews, Michael Serpa, Matt Dunn and Connor Melillo all played vital roles in 2009.
If there’s an area where graduation will take a toll, however, it’s defense. Fuller and LaSala leave gaping holes at their respective positions, and no clear replacements have emerged. Scott Thompson, a skilled junior, may be the Warriors’ top defenseman in 2010.
A cause for concern, perhaps. But optimism is back en vogue in Wilton. And no one’s more optimistic than Joe LaSala.
New players will step up next year to lead the team, and…make big plays when the team needs them to.
And, he adds, Just like this year, Wiseman will make warriors out of boys.
Reach Conor at email@example.com.
Posted In: Fairfield lacrosse