New Trier's boys lacrosse program is, virtually, NASCAR's Jimmie Johnson.
Dominant, year after year after year -- but without the fire suit. The Trevians won their sixth consecutive Illinois High School Lacrosse Association (IHSLA) Class A state title last June. They beat Loyola Academy, in the final, for the fifth year in a row.
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ŸKevin Harris (Stevenson, Sr., D)
ŸMax Huber (Stevenson, Sr., GK)
ŸMick Parks (New Trier, Sr., MF/Face-off)
ŸZach Wood (Waubonsie/Metea Valley, Jr., Attackman)
Which means Loyola's Ramblers can readily identify with a string of Buffalo Bills teams. Buffalo, after all, was a serial Super Bowl runner-up from 1991-94.
For trivia buffs, along with avid fans of "Jeopardy!" Answer: Lyons Township.
Question: Which team lost to New Trier in a state championship, in the season before (2005) NT and Loyola started their half-decade of consecutive title-game meetings?
NT has amassed eight IHSLA championships since 1995. Loyola has scooped up eight as well, including three straight from 2002-04.
If you're a lax fan and hoping for a different IHSLA Class A boys state-final matchup this spring, consider making plans to check out the championship tilt in another state. New Trier is ranked 22nd nationally in ESPN Rise High School Lacrosse's Fab 50, and its yearly out-of-state strength of schedule alone -- the Trevs topped highly regarded Brother Rice (Mich.) last spring -- could lift a few small buildings.
Loyola? Formidable, again. Especially its junior class.
"Unfortunately for a lot of schools with lacrosse teams, the word out there is that this year's New Trier team is its best," said Warren coach John Vignocchi. "New Trier, as a lacrosse program, is a machine. I see no end to its domination."
Chimed Libertyville coach Brady Sullivan, with an unmistakable air of resignation: "Every year, it seems, is New Trier's best year. Loyola, this year … so good, again. Last year, I thought Stevenson would break through, get to at least the state final.
"Stevenson," he added, "came close."
One-goal close. Stevenson's Patriots, in their first IHSLA Final Four appearance, lost to Loyola 7-6 in a highly charged and entertaining 2010 state semifinal.
"Great game," Sullivan recalled. "A lot of people watched that one. A lot of big-time college coaches watched that one."
LA then fell 7-6 to NT in the final at Oak Park-River Forest. It was 4-4 at the half. The Trevians scored the game-winner in the final minute.
Lax fans in attendance couldn't relax from start to finish.
"It'll take quite some time before New Trier and Loyola start feeling significant pressure from other teams," Sullivan said.
But Stevenson chipped at New Trier's invincibility last spring when it nipped the North Shore powerhouse 9-8 in the regular season. Pats goalkeeper Max Huber remembers the colossal victory as if it happened two minutes ago.
"I remember looking at the clock, with about 30 seconds left in that game," said the University of Albany-bound Huber, an IHSLA all-stater last spring. "We're up by a goal, hanging on. Those 30 seconds -- I'm telling you, they took forever. OK, maybe not forever. Maybe two hours. It felt like two hours, those final seconds.
"Our defensive players had serious game faces on for the entire game. That's what I also remember about that game."
NT's loss to Stevenson wasn't 7.7-on-the-Richter-scale seismic. Four Pats -- Huber, attackman Tim Engel (Class of 2010), defensemen/brothers Matt Harris (Class of '10) and Kevin Harris (current senior) -- would earn IHSLA first-team all-state honors.
But the result got plenty of folks' attention. It also provided hope for a handful of teams -- teams hoping to enter The Elite Teams Only club.
Or teams hoping to at least get to an arm's length of knocking on the club's door.
"The Naperville area -- that's one of the areas to watch in the next few years," said Lake Zurich Lacrosse Club President Dave Kintzer. "There's talent down there; families from the East Coast (a lax hotbed) are moving there, and the kids are eager to play lacrosse. Programs are accelerating in that area.
"St. Charles, too," he added. "I heard youth lacrosse programs in St. Charles have recently attracted about 300 kids (second through eighth grade)."
Looking for the seeds of dominance exhibited by NT and LA in this century's first decade? Many current Trevians and Ramblers first picked up a lacrosse stick in the first or second grade. Their area youth coaches make sure the beginners ace Stickhandling 101 before even thinking about introducing them to the basics of shooting and checking.
The kids eventually join their best friends on lax travel teams. Perennially.
They play catch -- with sticks, not mitts -- in backyards, in parking lots, in driveways, in streets, in (pick an open area, any open area).
By the time they reach high school, they had either trained or played together for nearly half their lives.
"A freshman lacrosse player at New Trier and Loyola, typically, is at least three years ahead of most freshmen at other schools," said Larry Huber, Max's father, who raised another mad-about-lax player (Jack, a freshman attackman at Albany). "The stick skills … they're so advanced, so noticeable when you watch them play. New Trier's and Loyola's kids are outstanding when it comes to catching and throwing.
"Those teams are great, every year, because of their youth and feeder programs," he added. "It's that simple."
Twenty-two freshmen came out for lacrosse at Hoffman Estates this spring. None had played a minute of organized lacrosse in grade school.
"There's such history there, with both New Trier and Loyola, and the kids that show up as freshmen had been preparing to play for those programs for years," said Hoffman Estates coach Joe Garofalo, who coached five all-Mid Suburban Hawks last spring. "Not a lot of communities provide opportunities for young grade-schoolers to learn about lacrosse."
One of Garofalo's assistants, Eric Mills, played lacrosse at New Trier in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
"Back then," Garofalo recalled, "Barrington was pretty much the only school in our area with a lacrosse team."
Some varsity coaches still have to devote significant chunks of practice time to stickhandling. Imagine a varsity basketball team spending 30 minutes each day on … dribbling.
"I equate stickhandling to skating in hockey," Garofalo said. "Skating, for players on outstanding hockey teams, is second nature. Lacrosse teams at New Trier and Loyola do not spend time on stickhandling in practice; their players have basically mastered that skill. They're spending a lot of time on advanced things … things like man-up schemes."
Garofalo played football at Schaumburg (Class of '96) and Carthage (Wis.) College. He got introduced to lacrosse in college.
"Just messing around with it," he said. "I knew people who played it. I learned about it from them, and I found out that it's a finesse sport."
While serving as a teacher's assistant at Palatine High School, he met Pirates boys coach Heath McFaul, who guided Palatine to the IHSA Lacrosse Cup (Class B) state championship in 2005, the year he also was named IHSLA Coach of the Year.
"Heath showed me the ins and outs of the sport; he was so helpful," said Garofalo, a special-education teacher at HEHS. "It's been a struggle, at times, finding teachers with lacrosse backgrounds in the building. But I've been able to find outstanding teachers here. If you teach well, I've always believed, you're also going to be able to coach well -- no matter the sport."
Tom Herrala coaches New Trier's dynasty; Loyola's head man is Rob Snyder, whose staff is a lot like the Chicago Bears' -- loaded with ex-head coaches.
"Six, maybe seven, of Loyola's assistants have head-coaching experience," Warren's Vignocchi said. "That's a tremendous, tremendous staff -- head and shoulders above the state's other programs. You just know they're coaching kids the right way."
Parents help out as volunteer lax coaches. But moms and dads of New Trier and Loyola players have a leg up -- plus a lacrosse stick up -- on parents of players in developing programs.
"The parents who help me out are great, fully committed to our program," Vignocchi said. "I couldn't ask for more enthusiastic parents than the ones I've had here at Warren. But they didn't play lacrosse in high school, in college. You just know a dad or a mom who gives time at a traditional power like a New Trier, has probably played organized lacrosse for a number of years."
Kintzer, LZ's Lacrosse Club president, brought up the alumni factor.
"Former New Trier and Loyola players are coming back and coaching at their alma maters, after playing lacrosse in college," he said. "They know the sport so well, and they're still enthusiastic about the sport."
Reality: New Trier and Loyola, in a sport that some have described as "hockey in the air," will continue to glide toward success for a while. But that's not a bad thing. It's a challenge, having a pair of behemoths around each spring. It becomes a blast, after knocking one down. (Just ask members of Stevenson's 2010 squad.)
NT's and LA's collective grip at the top of the IHSLA world is a tight one. But other eager teams -- and players -- are out there, nipping at the heels of the big boys' lacrosse cleats.
Stevenson, like New Trier, featured four first-team all-staters last spring, plus IHSLA Coach of the Year Brian Larsen. Former New Trier and Chicago Machine coach John Combs directs Team One, an elite lacrosse traveling team. Combs recruited Stevenson's Huber, a keeper for True Lacrosse's travel club, to protect nets for Team One at last summer's King of the Hill Tournament at Swarthmore (Pa.) College.
Huber packed his gear. The tourney's MVP: Huber.
Lax.com picked Stevenson as one of Illinois' top three teams in a recent piece, "Maturing Midwest." (Guess the other two). Huber was mentioned in a blurb about the Pats. A reader commented: "I had an opportunity to watch this kid play last summer at King of the Hill … catlike reflexes between the pipes … hard-hitting and aggressive outside the crease … awesome downfield transition game. Can't wait to see him play for Albany."
One of the players to watch in the Northwest suburbs this spring is St. Viator middie Brian Goss. To those 22 green lax players at Hoffman Estates, take note. And dream big. Goss hadn't played a lick of organized lacrosse before his freshman year.
The same Goss has committed to play lacrosse for D-I Siena (N.Y.) College.
Lake Forest, a five-time IHSLA Class A state champion, reached a state quarterfinal after upsetting sixth-seeded Glenbrook South last spring. The Scouts have the talent to make another Elite Eight appearance. Other stout Class A teams hoping to hit the ground running -- and scoop gobs of ground balls -- this spring: St. Charles (2010 state semifinalist), Wheaton Warrenville South, Lyons Township, Naperville North, Libertyville, Evanston, St. Viator and reigning Mid-Suburban champ Barrington.
"Teams, in addition to New Trier and Loyola, are getting better," Kintzer said.
New Trier and Loyola Academy clash again on May 12. Mick Parks, a University of Virginia-bound midfielder, stars for NT; attackman Luke Cowan rocks (and roll dodges) for LA.
Should be another dandy game.
Should be another state-championship preview.